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9 Feb, 2018

20 years after moving to Asia, PATA’s pursuit of relevance remains elusive

The Pacific Asia Travel Association this week marks the 20th anniversary of its move from San Francisco to Bangkok. Travel Impact Newswire Executive Editor Imtiaz Muqbil, who has covered PATA since 1981, takes a look back and a look ahead.

Bangkok – When PATA began pondering its move from San Francisco to Asia in the mid-1990s, the association was at the height of its glory. Membership was at an all time high. The PATA Travel Mart was the pre-eminent travel trade show of its time. The Cold War had ended. Asia was booming. Led by China and the ASEAN countries, the Asian Century held out much promise. It was time for an association that had been founded in the United States to move to the new global centre of gravity.

The Thai capital was chosen after a drawn out political battle that was typically PATA, with plenty of jousting, all in good stead. Other strong contenders were Hong Kong and Singapore. Bangkok won, due to its lower operational costs, geographical advantage, availability of staff, its vibrant tourism sector, the strong support of the Tourism Authority of Thailand and its long standing relations with PATA.

In June 1997, just months before the actual move, the Asian economic crisis struck, the first of a series of “external shocks”. Barely had the region recovered, the euphoria of the dawn of a new millennium was punctured by the 9/11 attacks, followed by the attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan by the U.S.-led “Coalition of the Willing”, the October 2002 Bali bombings, the 2004 tsunami, rising oil prices and more. Broadly speaking, the first decade of the 21st century was hit by a perfect storm of what I call the GEE factors:

  • Geopolitical crisis such as the “war on terror”,
  • Economic crisis such as skyrocketing oil prices and currency instability; and
  • Environmental crisis such as global warming.

As these external shocks impacted on budgets and business, many members began to review their membership. PATA was simply unable to provide any answers.

“Crisis management” became a buzzword, but as PATA has since discovered, managing a crisis treats only the symptoms, not the cause. A major study called “Building the Business” was hit by the reality that building the business is an unlikely prospect if the neighbourhood is on fire. Another big-ticket event, the CEO Challenge, sought to address global warming but it became just another me-too event and fired under par.

The PATA Travel Mart was overtaken within a few years by a new competitor, ITB Asia. The annual PATA conference, once the apex summit of Asia-Pacific travel, fell by the wayside. The PATA chapters dwindled, thanks primarily to a restructuring exercise that backfired big-time. The PATA boards, committees and councils remained stuck in the same old rut.

Emaciated and dehydrated, the association lost its relevance. It ceased to be a platform for honest debate and discussion. Controversial issues were swept under the carpet. The self-proclaimed “Voice of the Asia-Pacific tourism industry” became the voice of the old boys club.

As the wreckage piled up, heavy-duty efforts were made to cover it up. Journalists, especially this editor, and whistleblowers were attacked and ostracised, mainly by the PATA old boys club.

Since moving to Asia, PATA has seen five CEOs: Joe McInerney, an American (1998-2001), Peter de Jong, a Dutchman (2001-2008) Gregory Duffell, a New Zealander (2009-11) Martin Craigs, a Briton (2011-2014) and now Mr Mario Hardy, a dual Canadian-French citizen.

This year marks the start of Mr Hardy’s second three-year term. It will probably be his final term. Until he took over, membership was still heading south. Inheriting multiple problems bequeathed by his predecessors, Mr. Hardy has imbued PATA with some overdue sobriety and transparency.

A slow but steady turnaround is under way but there is long way to go. Key questions remain valid: How can PATA regain its relevance? What is its unique selling proposition? What product or service can it offer that other travel associations cannot? Is it worth being a member? What mistakes did it make in the past? How can it avoid making them again?

It is very noteworthy that an organisation that was ever so quick to produce futuristic reports by a phalanx of task forces and consultants, has never undertaken a serious internal evaluation of its own past mistakes.

On the positive side, the nascent PATA recovery is bolstered by the still relatively strong fundamentals of Asia, even though many individual countries are facing internal upheavals. The era of generating growth has made way for the challenge of managing it. Driven by a limitless flow of Chinese travellers, with the Indians not too far behind, badly managed growth itself is the next looming crisis. Mr. Hardy is calling for better dispersal of tourists between those destinations experiencing over-tourism and under-tourism. It’s nothing new. NTOs have been conscious of the need for better dispersal of tourists for the last 40 years.

To regain relevance, PATA has to put “Asia” back into the Pacific Asia Travel Association. Other international organisations such as the UNWTO and WTTC have just got new leaders, neither of whom know much about Asia. The Asia-Pacific travel & tourism industry is already crammed with technology forums, youth forums, travel marts, and sustainability forums. What it lacks entirely is a single platform for serious debate and discussion of relevant questions that shatter the traditional comfort zones. For example:

  • What is the impact of the war on terror?
  • How are the Trump Administration’s “America First” policies likely to upset the tourism apple cart?
  • How much garbage does travel & tourism produce daily and what is it doing about it?
  • What is being done to address racial profiling, privacy concerns and human rights violations by the safety and security apparatus?
  • Will promoting LGBT tourism worsen the AIDS pandemic?
  • What is the extent of sexual harassment in the industry?
  • What can be done to combat corruption?
  • What is the state of global crime against tourists?
  • How much money have travel & tourism multinationals stashed away in tax havens?
  • What is the impact of gambling and casinos on social problems?
  • How serious is the problem of alcoholism in travel & tourism?
  • How is the rise of religious extremism, nationalism and xenophobia likely to affect tourism?
  • Is it time for Europe, Australia, UK and other OECD countries to relax their insulting and intrusive visa application process?
  • What is the travel industry doing to ensure better working conditions for migrant workers?
  • What is being done to uphold travel consumer protection rights?

Precisely because these questions are deliberately skirted at travel industry forums that the door opens for PATA to fill the vacuum. It is time to move beyond CEOs, start-ups and technobabblers and give a voice to those at the grassroots of Asian society, such as unionists, migrant workers, human rights activists, social workers, consumer protection advocates, privacy watchdog groups, and more. There is gross imbalance between over-discussion of social media, technology, marketing, branding and sustainability and under-discussion of all the above questions.

The generational transition now under way makes PATA’s pursuit of relevance all the more important. Mr. Hardy is big on involving the young generation. But the outgoing generation has bequeathed the current mess to the incoming generation. A new era and new faces requires a new, much more realistic agenda. Living in denial, sweeping issues under the carpet and preaching to the converted is no longer an option. PATA paid the price of doing so in the past. Unless it learns from past mistakes, history will only repeat itself.

And PATA will never regain its former glory. Never.