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8 Apr, 2012

Will PATA Regain Its Past Glory?

BANGKOK: Twenty years ago, the Pacific Asia Travel Association, PATA, was the pre-eminent travel industry organisation of the Asia Pacific, recognised as its primary authority and “voice”. Its membership totalled a formidable 2,060 in 1994. Its annual conference was the place to be for marketing, networking, research and lobbying. Cities queued up to bid for the annual conference and travel mart. Its statistical research was considered the foremost source of data on regional trends.

Today, that is no longer the case. Paid membership is reported to be in the vicinity of 500. The emerging generation of industry members has never heard of it. Can PATA regain its former glory? This question will loom high between April 19-22 at PATA’s AGM and annual conference in Malaysia, a country that has hosted three previous such events at various cutting-edge periods in the history of the association and the Asia-Pacific.

Under the theme “Building the Business Beyond Profits”, PATA is positioning the annual conference as an opportunity to share “successful managerial and entrepreneurship business models and principles.” But it has yet to prove the success of its own business model. A flurry of PATA Press releases in recent weeks is designed to show that it has reinvented itself as a new, improved association. Unfortunately, PATA press releases have lost credibility; they were trying to paint a upbeat picture even when the association was heading downhill.

Indeed, PATA is a long way from proving that it has learnt from its own past mistakes. How it responds to the issues and challenges raised in the analysis below will determine whether PATA again becomes the leading organisation it once was or remains the mediocre grouping it is now. Three years ago, it was precisely such probing reports by Travel Impact Newswire and TTR Weekly that uncovered the truth and forced much-needed change in PATA. Whether by its own members or the media, that pressure must continue.


This is the era of the Asian Century, marked by the emergence of a new world order. Such phenomenal change will be further complicated by Big-Power rivalry for influence and interests in Asia. The role of the Asia Pacific travel & tourism industry, and that of PATA, in this changing global scenario has been only superficially and selectively identified. Is PATA there only to help members capitalise on the strengths and opportunities of economic growth, or is it prepared to deal with the weaknesses and threats of social, geopolitical and environmental hazards? Is its job only to forecast sunny skies, or also to provide early warnings of looming tsunamis and storms?

Fancy slogans like NextGen notwithstanding, PATA has yet to realise that it is no longer in the business of creating growth but coping with the risks and challenges of growth. The World Economic Forum has described these challenges as the Seeds of Dystopia. There is no evidence that PATA has crafted a proper response to what could be better termed as the “Weeds of Dystopia” and the “unintended consequences” they can have on entire countries and industries, especially travel & tourism.

In 2011, under interim CEO Bill Calderwood, PATA published a report entitled “Our Future Strategic Focus.” Its over-arching argument was that members and prospective members are primarily interested in an organisation that helps them build their business. These days, however, with the huge tourist numbers waiting to be tapped in the Asia-Pacific, political and economic stability is the fundamental prerequisite for building the business. The “Future Strategic Focus” is based largely on the assumption that peace and stability will be the norm. It offers no pointers on dealing with turbulence and instability.

This lapse is even more unusual in view of the fact that external turbulence and instability was a major cause of PATA’s declining membership. By failing its members in their time of need, PATA lost relevance and ceased to offer value for dues. For an organisation to bring its collective strength to bear on wider issues that members individually are powerless to deal with becomes even more important in an inter-connected world in which geopolitical and economic threats have eclipsed environmental threats. Sweeping issues under the carpet is like trying to ignore the results of a life-threatening medical test.

To be the “voice” of Asia-Pacific travel & tourism requires forceful advocacy, not selective advocacy. Here, the record is already checkered. In November 2011, at the World Travel Market in London, the then new CEO Mr Martin Craigs, along with other industry chieftains, railed at length against the UK Air Passenger Duty. Last week, the UK government bluntly rebuffed those protests, raising the duty by another 8%. In recent months, PATA along with other industry bodies such as IATA and the UNWTO has been trying to combat the EU carbon emissions tax. Had the Chinese, Indian and U.S. governments not weighed in, the odds are that would have gone nowhere. A third challenge is travel advisories, a constant irritation for many developing countries, especially in Asia. PATA has failed to do much about them, a clear indicator of its weak “punch.” Forcing governments to relax visa policies may be easy; making them backtrack on destructive policies is not.


Running an international organisation with all its politics, egos, interests and experts is no easy job. Everyone who pays dues expects a return for the investment. Having to do too much for too many with too little resources is an unenviable situation.

People: One reason for the decline in its prestige and influence was that PATA, like many Asian countries and corporations, became too dominated by a small clique of executives. While many have moved on, for age and health reasons, there are clear signs that the “old boys club” is being replaced by a “new boys club”. Many PATA forums and events are being dominated by the same faces seeking to boost their individual profiles. Over time, this will again lead to a return of the same old problems. Democratisation of the organisation and creating a sense of ownership by the wider membership is a long way away.

Policies and perspectives: The Strategic Intelligence Centre is no longer producing powerful position papers or policy perspectives to stimulate debate. Issues like the Asian Century and the “Seeds of Dystopia” are nowhere on the radar screen. Civil society representatives seldom get space at industry events, especially those who are inclined to utter some unpalatable truths, challenge conventional wisdoms or offer alternative perspectives.

Processes: The annual conference will be accompanied by an AGM at which PATA’s internal administration matters will have to be made public, including its budgets, finances, etc. These disclosures, required by law, will tell the real story, behind and beyond the Press releases. Has the restructuring process really worked? How about the outsourcing of the Strategic Intelligence Centre and Travel Mart? In today’s era of transparency and trust, such issues are critical. If PATA has learned from past mistakes, the KL conference will show it. Here, too, the Building the Business blueprint falls short; nowhere does it talk about simultaneously building transparency, trust and accountability.

Products: Does PATA have the right suite of products, policies and perspectives that prospective members will be prepared to pay for in the Asian Century? As the industry has grown, many external opportunities have emerged to network, market, access information and lobby. Its annual conference and travel mart are no longer unique events with unique content. Neither are its various forums and webinars. Issues like Gross National Happiness and Indigenous tourism were on the regional tourism agenda long before PATA jumped on the bandwagon. Social media experts are everywhere. Indeed, soon after the KL conference, the UNWTO meetings for East and South Asia will take place in Chiang Mai on 4 – 5 May and a Travel & Tourism Summit will accompany the East Asia World Economic Forum in Bangkok on 30 May – 1 June. Activities such as offering support in the aftermath of the March 2011 tsunami that hit Japan may help raise PATA’s PR profile but provide little business-building value for the general membership.

The crisis-management webinars are perhaps most illustrative of PATA’s poor response to the challenges of the Asian Century. Crisis management is no longer the issue; crisis prevention is. Crisis management gurus see plenty of opportunity to build their private business by dispensing post-crisis medication, but the real value for the wider membership lies in preventing crises, especially the man-made ones.


PATA did its job exceedingly well in its first 60 years, then went into a self-inflicted tailspin. Today, its competitive advantage of being the only grouping of all sectors of Asia Pacific travel & tourism has little relevance. While the industry has been growing, PATA, paradoxically, has been shrinking. Would the Asia Pacific travel & tourism industry survive if PATA were to fade away? Most certainly yes. The fact that PATA executives never acknowledged their own poor decision-making as being part of the problem, and insisted on blaming the media, is symptomatic of the malaise.

Much more reformasi, perestroika and glasnost is required for PATA to again become a force which can influence change, not be influenced by it. The Malaysian government, which has invested heavily in the annual conference, will also need to do a thorough and realistic evaluation of the results. Whether the conference generates the ideas and policies required to navigate the looming storms of the Asian Century remains to be seen.

If it does, this report can take some credit for making members think long and hard about it.