Political Instability, Violence Threat to Asia's Tourism Industry



Political violence has done considerable damage to tourism in Asia and the Pacific over the past few years. But industry experts say the damage is not necessarily permanent. Governments and industry leaders say much can be done to rebuild tattered tourism reputations.
As the world watched, a small band of terrorists killed scores in Mumbai last November. Although India has often suffered from political violence, this attack - aimed largely at travelers and foreigners - was a new horror.
The globally televised attack, coming during an international economic slump, contributed to an eight percent fall in tourist arrivals this year.
In Thailand, tens of thousands of anti-government protesters laid siege to Bangkok's airports late last year, essentially trapping more than 350,000 travelers in the country for a week. Before that shock had worn off, a few months later, another group of protesters led violent riots in Bangkok.
The two incidents added to the damage from the world economy cut tourist arrivals to Thailand by 20 percent in the first six months of 2009.
Phornsiri Manoharn, the chairwoman of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, says many tourists still worry that Thailand's political tensions could spoil their visits.
"When people saw any demonstration like that they associate with the closing of the airport," said Manoharn. "Even [though] we don't close [the airport] but they look like the demonstration, that they might and that's why they're afraid."
Tourism is important to the Asia-Pacific region. In Southeast Asia, it contributes over three percent to economic output. In some parts of the region, tourism accounts for 10 percent of employment; in the Pacific island nations of Fiji and Vanuatu, the figure is over 30 percent.
But as India and Thailand have seen, violence and instability quickly scare away visitors.
Recovery comes, but usually more slowly than after natural disasters. 

John Koldowski is PATA's communications director.
"What we have seen in many cases is where there is some sort of intervention effect - it's been natural or no fault of anybody - the rebound has been very quick," he said. "Where there has been intent to cause harm as in the case of a say terrorist attack - and where there has been a long history of such attacks occurring in that destination or nearby destination, it takes a little longer to come back."
But with the right government and industry responses, visitors will return. For instance, in October 2002, bombs set off by Islamic militants on the island of Bali killed more than 200 people, most of them foreigners. The island, one of the world's most famous tourist destinations, saw arrivals fall by 36 percent in 2003.
Koldowski said the first bombings shocked the tourism industry.  
"Bali is a classic case there - it took some time [to recover] because it had never occurred there before - it was so dramatic and affected specific western tourists," he said.
But the Indonesian government cracked down on terrorists and boosted security. And tourism industry professionals worked hard to woo back visitors. When another attack three years later left 20 people dead, PATA reported that tourist arrivals were little affected.
And twin bombings at international hotels in Jakarta last July are expected to do little damage to tourism.
In South Asia, Sri Lanka and Nepal hope the end of long-running conflicts will entice more visitors.
Sri Lankan officials say the end of a civil war earlier this year brought a surge of interest from foreign investors and hotel operators.
Dileep Mudadeniya, Sri Lankan Tourism Promotion Bureau managing director, says there are opportunities for tourism, particularly in areas long closed off by the war.
"North and east, which have not actually taken any kind of development for the last 20 years, virgin beaches, land, monuments is available and the people also come and exploit something or look at something totally undiscovered," said Mudadeniya. "We are going on the line which is 'undiscovered, unspoiled, an island of authenticity', which we can offer."
In Nepal, political agreements have ended a Maoist insurgency that lasted more than a decade.
The minister for Tourism and Civil Aviation, Sharatsingh Bhandari, says Nepal's transition from conflict to peace is in itself a tourism draw.
"Now we are going to form a new Nepal. So giving the message for the New Nepal and inviting the people to see, not only the prospect of tourism itself but even the process of transition of the political system from 'bullet to ballot.' That was done successfully by the Nepalese themselves," he said.
Industry analysts say tourism in Asia is likely to expand rapidly over the next few years. But, the key, they say, is that governments find ways to prevent political violence, and act quickly to calm fears when it does happen. 

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