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1 Dec, 2008

Under Seige, Tourism Sector Needs to Ask Hard Questions

The twin debacles in Bangkok and Mumbai last week have opened a new chapter in the history of the crises-ridden travel & tourism industry and will require some radical new thinking amongst the new generation of emerging leaders.

The tourism promotion campaigns of both “Incredible !ndia”  and “Amazing Thailand Amazing Wonders” have been shot to shreds and all the goodwill and positive publicity generated at the World Travel Market in London earlier this month gone down the tubes.

Recovering from these catastrophes in countries that proudly proclaim to be two of the Asia Pacific region’s leading democracies and travel destinations is going to be a tall order.

Ever since the 1996 haze and 1997 economic crash, the travel & tourism industry has been struck by one crisis after another – 9/11, the Iraq war, the Bali bombings, SARS, the tsunami, the temporary surge in oil and food prices, climate change and the most recent financial turmoil.

But these double-whammies are different and far more serious. Protestors, terrorists and anyone else with a grievance now know for sure that they can generate maximum impact for their cause by targeting the twin soft-targets of tourists and tourism.

No more can the tourism industry claim to be aloof from these grievances. In fact, it has now moved to centre-stage, as the only economic sector that can be – and is being — directly affected by social, cultural, financial, environmental, economic, political and geopolitical factors, either in combination or separately.

Thus, when tourism is hurt whether combatants are clashing over disputed territory like Khao Phreah Viharn, Kashmir or Palestine, or blockading airports in order to force regime change, it behooves the industry leaders to start doing more than just wring their hands and issue meaningless denunciations of the perpetrators.

These disasters are emerging at a time when the industry itself is facing tremendous change. Both the institutions and individuals which founded and grew the industry in the 1960s-1970s are undergoing a generational transition, as are the ways of doing business within the industry itself.

But while the outgoing industry leaders have been happy to address mundane, non-sensitive issues like SARS, tsunamis and global warming, the new generation of leaders will need to open a new chapter in relations between travel & tourism and the security agencies as well as their respective Interior and Foreign ministries, both of which so far have been considered out of bounds.

Both in India and Thailand, the role of the security agencies has come under scrutiny.

India has been a victim of terrorism ever since Mahatma Gandhi was shot by a non-Muslim fanatic in 1948, exactly 60 years ago, and lost two more Gandhi’s, both prime ministers, to non-Muslim fanatics in 1984 and 1991.

So, it is not surprising that in spite of a slew of more recent attacks on trains, mosques and stock markets, India’s military is coming under fire for being too busy sinking “pirate ships” in the Gulf of Aden while allowing the real, far more dangerous vessels to infiltrate Indian waters from “another country.”

In Thailand, questions are arising about why security agencies did not move rapidly to block the PAD protestors when they were just beginning to gather at Bangkok airport, and not for the first time, either?

Will anyone in the Thai or Indian travel industries have the courage to demand answers from the security agencies? Almost certainly not.

Indeed, there is an even chance that the industry leadership will make little effort to question two more downstream impacts that are sure to follow: a) a massive increase in security costs and b) significant tightening of visa issuance procedures.

Both will have a significant long-term impact on travel & tourism.

Private sector security contractors and vendors of security equipment are now set to exploit this goldmine revenue stream.

The market for CCTV cameras, X-ray machines, body scanners, iris-recognition, finger-printing apparatus, smart-cards is set to grow exponentially as just about every public facility from hotels and department stores to railway and bus stations comes under pressure to “boost security”.

Far more critical for Thailand and ASEAN, the visa-free process may come under review, impacting free flows of travel to, from and within the region.

The travel & tourism industry cannot afford to capitulate to either of those two sure-fire consequences.

Tough questions need to be asked, the primary one being why should travel & tourism pay the price and the costs for lapses by security agencies, and the inability of diplomats to make peace between peoples and nations?

As a leading taxpayer, investor and contributor to job creation, poverty alleviation and foreign exchange earnings, the industry may now need to emerge from its inferiority complex and exercise its right to hold government agencies responsible for dereliction of duty as well as faulty policies that trigger these catastrophes in the first place.

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