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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
(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.)