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22 Sep, 2003

How Effective are “Crisis Management” Programmes

The recent spate of crises buffetting the travel & tourism industry have given rise to a phenomena called “crisis management programmes.”

But the industry only has to look at the examples of Sri Lanka and Nepal for proof that these programmes have very limited value unless the root causes of the problems are addressed.

Last week, tourism delegates from member countries of the UN Economic and Social Commission of the Asia Pacific met in the exotic island of Lombok, near Bali, to exchange experiences about what they did to recover from the SARS crisis, the fallout of the Iraq conflict and other country-specific problems faced by individual states, like bomb attacks.

An analysis of the recovery and crisis management programmes shows a huge outlay of taxpayers money expended on helping put the regional tourism industry back on its feet.

Especially noticeable was that even after blaming the international media and TV networks, most regional national tourism organisations put marketing money back into the same media they accused of exacerbating their problems in the first place.

Whereas the travel & tourism industry once used to be described as a great creator of jobs and income, with strong long-term prospects, it is now being described as “volatile and vulnerable” marked by clouds of uncertainty in an era when travellers will just “have to get used to” disruptions.

Take for example, Nepal, the latest to join the list of crisis-hit countries due to the collapse of the peace talks with the Maoists and fresh violence that has already claimed several lives.

Industry press releases that were chirpy and upbeat during the days of peace talks have now undergone a distinct change in mood.

Earlier this month, in a move that many would consider highly unusual by travel industry standards, the Nepal Association of Tour Operators (NATO) met with the former facilitators of the Government-Maoist peace talks, and leaders of Kathmandu-based tourism related associations to seek ways of gaining assurances from the Maoists and other political parties that “the movement of tourists would not be hampered during any political rally or other events.”

According to NATO, two prominent Nepalese legislators present at the talks said they would lobby for such assurances from the Maoists.

“They also said that the Maoists and the entire nation have realised that tourism is the backbone of the national economy and that everyone would be equally concerned about the tourists’ safety,” a NATO statement said.

The tour operators are trying to maintain some perspective of normalcy, even though Kathmandu is reported to be bristling with troops. Nepal Tourism Board Chief Executive Mr. Tek Bahadur Dangi said: “Virtually all tourism destinations within Nepal are functioning normally…..

“Nepal, like many other popular holiday destinations, does have its on-going political problems, but we would like to remind everyone that more than 2.8 million tourists have travelled to Nepal since 1996 when the Maoist insurgency began. Tourists in Nepal have not been targeted in any way.”

At the southern end of the South Asian peninsula, the fruits of peace are clear.

Peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers have ended major hostilities. The results have been immediate, even with virtually no government money being spent on “crisis management programmes.”

Visitor arrivals rose from 336,794 in 2001 to 393,171 in 2002. The last major Tamil Tiger attack on Colombo airport in July 2001 was responsible for the 18.9 % decline in arrivals that year over 400,414 in 2000. Indeed, violence all through the 1990s cost Sri Lanka dearly, with arrivals falling to as low as 302,265 in 1996.

Earlier this year, the Sri Lankan government relaxed its visa requirements for all the South Asian countries which, along with the ASEAN countries, most of Europe and North America, raised to 76 the total number of countries whose citizens can get visa-free or visa-on-arrival access.

Again, the results were immediate. In Jan-July 2003, visitor arrivals to Sri Lanka totalled 259,887, up 24.4 % over the same period of 2002.

Director-General of the Sri Lanka Tourist Board, Mr S. Kalaiselvam, in Bangkok last week to participate in the Thailand Travel Mart, said the country is heading for a record 500,000 visitors this year.

He said the Indian and UK markets are booming, and expected to generate more than 100,000 visitors each this year. Preparations are under way to capitalise on the English cricket team in Sri Lanka this November to create some more marketing awareness in the UK.

Mr Kalaiselvam said Australian visitors are on the rise, coming through Singapore and discovering the previously closed northern beaches of Sri Lanka as an alternative to Bali.

“The travel advisories are all gone now,” he said, in a clear message to the tourism industry that unless the root causes of a tourism decline are addressed, all the crisis management programmes are a total waste of money.

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