2 May, 2016
A travel industry column branded The Irritant? Whatever for?
Soon after my 1978 move to Thailand, I began to seek a better understanding of Buddhism, the way of life in this country. One book on Buddhist management techniques offered this five-step guide to decision-making: Listen, Think, Question, Decide and Act.
Right at the heart of those five steps, like an intersection at the crossroads of life, is the word “Question”.
The enlightened Lord Buddha was right. Asking questions is central to establishing truth and justice, promoting transparency, democracy and accountability. It sets check and balance mechanisms for those in power, and advances healthy debate and discussion.
An over-arching right to question, question, question is good for the system. It prevents absolute power from corrupting absolutely.
It is the path to Enlightenment.
In the 1980s and 90s, the travel trade media excelled in asking questions. Veteran journalists such as Murray Bailey, Don Ross, Mike Woolley, Ian Marshman, Jonathan Conquest, Tony Glanville, Yeoh Siew Hoon and I enjoyed industry press conferences at which probing, challenging questions were the order of the day.
In turn, many industry leaders liked being intellectually challenged. It was nothing personal. They had a job to do, and we had ours. Each side was ready for a thrust-and-parry session. The level of maturity and mutual respect was high enough to allow even the most ferociously antagonistic media conferences to be accompanied by personal conviviality.
Today, the young generation of journalists is discouraged from upsetting anyone who could even remotely upset a publication’s gravy train. Industry leaders, many of whom also control marketing budgets, dislike being challenged. Most are now well trained to dodge and evade hard questions.
The result is plain to see. A dull, dumbed-down travel industry with a shocking level of intolerance for alternative perspectives.
It’s not just in the travel industry. Globally, the ability to question is eroding even as the need to question is growing. The recent Global Media Freedom Index warns that quality journalism is under enormous commercial and political pressure. As freedoms to discuss and debate deteriorate, thanks to religious extremists of all ilks, draconian governments and ruthless corporate oligarchs, the need for probing, challenge questions is higher than ever.
Demanding answers to sharp questions can, and has, changed the course of history. In the 1970s, journalists challenging the official narrative ended the Vietnam War by awakening the American people and the world to the lies of the U.S. military. Another set of gutsy journalists exposed the lies of a U.S. President and forced his resignation in what became known as the Watergate scandal.
In the travel industry, my colleague Don Ross and I worked with PATA whistleblowers to question and expose the sorry state of PATA’s finances, forcing the ouster of former CEO Peter de Jong. We also dissected the official narrative of the USAID-funded tourism marketing assistance project for ASEAN and raised enough questions about its dubious process to get it aborted.
Making industry leaders squirm remains my forte. At the October 2015 ITB Asia, I asked former WTTC Chairman Michael Frenzel about whether it would be only a matter of time before WTTC member corporations are snared by tax-evasion investigations. He evaded the question, but the global OECD-led crackdown on corporate tax evasion and the recent expose of the Panama Papers have proved my question to be spot-on.
Today, questions do not need to be posed only in press conferences. They can be posed in public, tweeted and shared, debated in chat-rooms and via social media. And there is no shortage of such questions waiting to be asked.
Hence, this new weekly column, aptly called The Irritant.
Unique in the annals of travel industry journalism, it is designed to irritate because that is what the best questions should do. Each column will be headlined by a question that will either require an answer or trigger some soul-searching about the need for one.
The inaugural column launched today poses a very fundamental question: Can the Travel & Tourism Industry Think? It sets the tone for future columns. It is my fervent hope that they will raise enough public eyebrows to force positive change in the way the travel industry does business.
Asking questions and demanding accountability of those in power is a universal human right. Systems riddled with cronyism and corruption are not overthrown by toadies but by those who break the shackles of conformity and go against the grain, often at great personal risk to themselves and their families.
The security apparatus claims that those who have done nothing wrong should have nothing to fear. The same applies in reverse, too. The security apparatus, governments and corporations which have done nothing wrong should have nothing to fear, either.
If the fundamental premise of the rule of law is that no-one should be above the law, enforcing the rule of law begins with a sharp, pointed question. Exactly as advised by the Lord Buddha – Listen, Think, QUESTION, Decide and then Act.
Verily, it IS the Path to Enlightenment.