How tourism can save the world (and itself) from disasters

Travelling has become a new-age religion. Its believers continue to grow, its tenets propagated as gospel truth, and its rituals performed with an enthusiasm that surpasses logic. However, travellers and those reaping the economic benefits of this unparalleled rise have a critical role in making tourist hotspots resilient – thereby aiding their own survival.

By Kritika Karki

In a recent survey, the world’s 20 most popular destinations were ranked according to their safety, and India sat at, a shockingly low, rank 16. The survey took into consideration several factors like crime rates, the likelihood of terrorist attacks, and vulnerability to natural disasters. While the ranking signals ‘India’s emergence and acceptance as a global tourist destination, it also highlights the ‘country’s perception as an ”unsafe” destination.

In India, and around the world, several incredible destinations – from the beaches of Bali, vistas of Kashmir to the backwaters of Kerala – are highly vulnerable to natural disasters. Paradoxically enough, our desire to seek out ever more exciting and spectacular locales, makes these fragile landscapes the site of intense tourist activities, taking away from the destinations everything that makes them attractive in the first place – a break from the pace of city life, relatively untouched natural beauty, and unique cultural experiences.

A 'living fort' crumbling under the weight of tourism
At the receiving end of a relentless stream of tourists, the fort at Jaisalmer has other factors to contend with. From sewage leaking into and damaging the foundations, to climate change-induced increased rainfall melting the traditional mud-roofs, this 900-year old wonder of the desert is just one of the world-famous destinations in India under threat from over-tourism and changing weather patterns.
Photo by Gerd Eichmann/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0
A ‘living fort’ crumbling under the weight of tourism
At the receiving end of a relentless stream of tourists, the fort at Jaisalmer has other factors to contend with as well. From sewage leaking into and damaging the foundations, to climate change-induced increased rainfall washing away the traditional mud-roofs, this 900-year old wonder of the desert is just one of the world-famous destinations in India under threat from over-tourism and changing weather patterns.
Photo by Gerd Eichmann/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

Today, social media is the prime driver of travel inspiration. Unknown, remote destinations gain popularity overnight and begin to witness an unparalleled influx of tourists. The safety of the place, gauged primarily by reported incidents of crime in news outlets and safety ranking in travel portals, is a critical factor on which this transformation to a tourist hotspot hinges. Informed travellers are rightly prioritising safety, and how effectively a destination conveys the message of its ability to handle a crisis is pivotal in deciding its future economic prospects.

Indonesia: A classic example of tourism-infused Disaster Risk Reduction

The importance of a tourist destination’s public perception is most apparent in Indonesia’s Tanjung Lesung. Developed as one of the ”10 new Balis”, the town was part of the ‘government’s ambitious plan post ‘Bali’s US$17 billion boost to the national economy in 2017. In December 2018, an unannounced tsunami wrecked the idyllic town of Tanjung Lesung and with it its hopes becoming a new tourism magnet. Disaster struck, and development plans came to a halt. Despite boasting a picturesque, towering volcano, turquoise waters and a rainforest sanctuary, the tourism-dependent town now faces major economic setbacks. (Link to video, here.)

Lying within the infamous Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia recorded 2,000 natural disasters in 2018 that claimed nearly 4,000 lives and displaced around 3 million people. These figures are not unusual for an island susceptible to natural disasters. But the number of people impacted rises dramatically due to a sizeable uninformed mass of visitors and locals. This is where the tourism infrastructure needs to pitch in by informing, educating, and preparing the hosts and the floating tourist population.

Tsunami is Japanese for 'harbour wave'
Located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Japan has been hit by several devastating tsunamis in its history. This image from 2011 shows the damage to the city of Sendai, hit by the tsunami generated by the Tohoku earthquake - the 4th most powerful earthquake ever recorded. The city later played host to the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in 2015, which resulted in formulation of the Sendai Framework. The framework recognises that 'the State has the primary role to reduce disaster risk but that responsibility should be shared with other stakeholders including local government and the private sector.' 
Photo by U.S. Navy/Flickr
Tsunami is Japanese for ‘harbour wave’
Located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Japan has been hit by several devastating tsunamis in its history. This image from 2011 shows the damage to the city of Sendai, hit by the tsunami generated from the Tohoku earthquake – the 4th most powerful quake ever recorded. The city later played host to the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in 2015, which resulted in formulation of the Sendai Framework. The framework recognises that ‘the State has the primary role to reduce disaster risk but that responsibility should be shared with other stakeholders including local government and the private sector.’
Photo by U.S. Navy/Flickr

Interestingly, Indonesian authorities do have plans in place to cater to their burgeoning tourist population. With visitor safety in mind, the Bali Hotels Association (BHA) worked with industry partners to draw up evacuation procedures and recognise member resorts that were able to implement them efficiently. There is a list of ”Tsunami – ready hotels”, an idea which should be publicised more strongly, and adopted across other vulnerable tourism geographies.

This forms a crucial part of what we call a ”participatory approach” towards risk reduction, where the private and public partners come together to build a safe and sustainable destination. Countries like Thailand and Australia are also encouraging tourism-based disaster risk reduction measures.

Incentivising safety – Who reaps the benefits?

As one of the world’s largest economic sectors, Travel & Tourism helps brings in much-needed revenue and provides livelihood opportunities to millions across the globe. Tourism accounts for 10.4% of global GDP and the creation of 313 million jobs (WTTC, 2017). Given that tourists are at the centre of this ecosystem, their participation is critical in enabling a safe, risk–free environment, conducive to both everyday life and tourist activities.

A high-altitude traffic jam at the Rohtang Jot in Himachal Pradesh.
Snowbound for 6 months of the year, the Rohtang Pass links the valleys of Kullu and Manali to the Lahaul & Spiti valleys beyond. With its storybook-like views of snow-capped peaks, and towering waterfalls, it pulls thousands of tourists every summer season. However, the high visitor count, on an increasingly crucial supply link, has had disastrous consequences to the fragile ecosystem of the area. Also, tourists become hapless victims of sudden snowstorms that affect the area every monsoon, becoming trapped for hours without food and water, waiting to be rescued.
A high-altitude traffic jam at the Rohtang Jot in Himachal Pradesh
Snowbound for 6 months of the year, the Rohtang Pass links the valleys of Kullu & Manali to the Lahaul & Spiti valleys beyond. With its storybook-like views of snow-capped peaks, and towering waterfalls, it pulls thousands of tourists every summer season. However, the high visitor count, to a pass straddling an increasingly crucial supply link, has had disastrous environmental consequences. Tourists also become hapless victims of sudden snowstorms that affect the area every monsoon, trapped for hours without food and water, and waiting to be rescued.
Photo by Aman Gupta/Wikipedia CC BY SA 3.0

On the one hand, providing the necessary disaster management infrastructure and services is not affordable for every sector or level of the tourism industry. On the other, in a highly competitive market, raising safety standards will ensure others follow suit. In a market-driven economy – once the customers (in this case travellers) start demanding safer, more transparent, and risk-ready services, the industry will work towards providing them.

This puts the onus on the traveller as well – to travel responsibly, choose wisely, and to educate oneself about the places they are visiting. There is a clear benefit for both the host as well as the tourist in prioritising safety and risk reduction practices.

Getting it right

For any destination to thrive as a tourist hotspot, positive positioning and reviews are critical. However, disasters always lead to a steep drop in arrivals. How then does a destination emerge from a tragedy to build back its brand and image?

The Paro Taktsang in Bhutan. Nestled in the Himalayas and beyond, with an average altitude of 9000-10000 feet, Bhutan has recognised its vulnerabilities to natural calamities and follows a policy of 'High Value, Low Impact' tourism which does not compromise on the safety of either locals, or tourists.
The Paro Taktsang, or Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan
Nestled in the Himalayas at an average altitude of 9000-10000 feet, Bhutan has recognised its vulnerabilities to natural calamities and follows a policy of ‘High Value, Low Impact’ tourism which does not compromise on the safety of either locals, or tourists.

While advertising and marketing play a crucial role in positioning the place as one focused on providing safe and risk-free experiences, proper safety protocols are also often used to promote it. Acceptance of a destination’s risks and assurance of authorities’ ability to handle them can serve as a unique selling point. There are countries which have struck a balance between building an image of a crisis-ready destination while remaining tourist-friendly.

Bhutan is an excellent example, where the country recognises its vulnerabilities to natural calamities and tailor-makes a delightful visitor experience that does not compromise on the safety of either locals or tourists. The government adheres firmly to a policy of ‘High Value, Low Impact’ tourism, which creates an image of exclusivity and high-yield for the country.

It is imperative that the tourism ecosystem works towards ensuring the destination is risk-free, for their own benefit. The ecosystem here includes the host country’s hospitality industry, the policymakers, tour operators, the transport network and every small or big business, which is involved in preparing their destination for the arrival and stay of tourists. Expectations thus arise from the industry and the visitors to carve out a more sustainable, green, inclusive and safe tourism culture.

Read more about how inspite of ranking 3rd among all Asian countries in terms of disaster occurrence, India fails to do one crucial thing – remembering the disasters its already lived through.

(Kritika Karki is an independent researcher working on disaster risk reduction and resilience; with a special focus on tourism and its relationship with disasters. This article primarily focuses on disaster risk concerning safe destinations. There are many other facets to tourist safety such as terror attacks, crimes rates, health risks etc. This commentary is applicable in those scenarios as well, keeping the focus on building safe destinations. Cover Image – A man sits on the pavement next to an evacuation sign at the Changi Airport in Singapore. Photo by Benjamin Sow on Unsplash.)

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