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22 Mar, 2004

After Madrid Bombings, Travel Advisory Double Standards Under Fire

BERLIN: The train bombings in Madrid last week cast a pall over the ITB Berlin, the world’s largest trade show, but also raised hackles among several developing countries about double standards over the controversial application of travel advisories.

In public and private comments, tourism ministers and senior delegates from Nepal, Egypt, Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia, all of whom have been hit by travel advisories by European, Australian, Japanese and US governments, were quick to note that no advisory was issued against Spain after the bombings.

Now, some countries are becoming bold enough to step up the rhetoric and demand fairness and accountability. With elections coming up in India, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, which can sometimes turn violent, there is concern that travel advisories will only complicate a fragile economic situation.

Travel advisories have become a contentious issue for the tourism industry, especially for developing countries. With safety and security clearly the primary factor in choice of destination, a travel advisory can trigger major cancellations, especially when insurance companies cease to offer cover.

Although advisory-hit countries have complained bitterly, approaches to the advisory-issuing governments have been met with the response that advisories are based on a desire to ‘protect their citizens’ and that they are issued on credible information related to safety concerns.

Advisory-hit countries have so far been too weak to retaliate for fear of raising the issue into a diplomatic incident and losing more tourists. However, the glaring double-standards apparent in the aftermath of the Madrid bombings have escalated the frustration level.

India’s Secretary, Ministry of Tourism, Mrs Rati Vinay Jha, said she was well aware of double standards, noting that they had been around long before the Madrid bombings. She did not elaborate publicly but later, another member of the Indian tourism delegation to the ITB said she was referring to the 9/11 terrorist attack.

“When that happened, Europeans declared themselves to be New Yorkers and called for people to travel to New York in a show of support and solidarity. When our countries get hit by terrorism, there is no show of solidarity. Instead, there are advisories.”

Publicly, Mrs Jha’s reaction was that ‘nothing can be done about it,’ and that the travel advisories are ‘political issues’ that had to be sorted out diplomatically through consultations with the advisory-issuing governments.

However, the Indians changed the stance when reminded that India, along with Brazil and South Africa, had stood up to the inequitable rules of the World Trade Organisation, and that if unfairness can be fought at that level, it can also be fought at the tourism level. They subsequently promised to take it up.

Their willingness was contrasted by the weak response of the Indonesian tourism minister I.Gede Ardika, a Balinese whose “island of the gods” also experienced a bombing in October 2002, and a spate of advisories.

He merely referred to the various ASEAN meetings which had ended with pronunciations that the advisories were ‘imbalanced’ and ‘not objective.’

Asked what should be done about it, he said it was upto the Indonesian government to decide. Reminded that he represented the Indonesian government, he said, “Yes, but I have other colleagues with whom I have to consult.”

He declined comment when asked if Indonesia should issue an advisory against Spain.

International travel organisations were also asked for their opinion.

The World Tourism Organisation (WTO-OMT) is based in Madrid. Asked if the developing countries now had a justifiable case to cite double standards, its secretary-general Francesco Frangialli agreed that they were seen as “unjustified” and that they should be “adequate and proportionate to reality” because of the heavy impact they can have.

Mr. Frangialli, who is French, said the issue would take centre-stage at an upcoming WTO-OMT’s technical committee meeting in Damascus.

The Pacific Asia Travel Association is based in Bangkok and has been fighting the advisories for more than a year. Its President and CEO Peter de Jong, a Dutchman, says the obvious double-standards coming to the fore have strengthened the case to seek accountability.

Chairman of the Egyptian Federation of Travel Chambers, Elhamy Al Zayat said that if the advisories cannot be applied fairly and equitably, they should be scrapped entirely.

Meanwhile, Spanish delegates at a European hotel conference that followed the ITB are fearing that they, too, will lose American business should the new prime minister carry out his policies to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq.

Last year, France was vilified in the US media for its government’s opposition to the Iraq war, and many Americans cancelled trips to the country, costing the industry billions of dollars in revenue. Accor, the French hotel chain, was particularly badly hit.

Many Americans instead shifted travel plans to Spain, France’s southern neighbour, whose former government had supported the war. Now, the Spanish tourism industry is worried that the French experience will repeat itself in Spain which is also now facing excoriation for ‘appeasing terrorism.’

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