- The Washington Times - Friday, October 24, 2003

BEIJING — This is the image countries want to convey: dramatic landscapes, vivid sunsets and friendly locals. But since the September 11 attacks, terrorism, war and SARS have conspired to send a loud-and-clear message to the world’s tourists — stay home.

At the largest international meeting of tourism officials, convened in the recently severe acute respiratory syndrome-stricken Chinese capital this week, damage control, economic recovery and a whiff of desperation dominated the agenda.

“People say crisis breeds innovation and opportunity. If that’s the case, the tourism industry is brimming with opportunities,” said Deborah Luhrman, the consultant who drafted the organization’s new crisis-management guidelines. No one in the audience laughed.

The meeting of 800 delegates from 141 member nations and more than 350 other groups concluded yesterday. It was the organization’s first general assembly since just weeks after the September 11 attacks.

Since then, a shopping list of disasters has kept spooking leisure travelers: War in Afghanistan and Iraq. More terrorism in Bali and Casablanca. And — just when optimism was beginning to surface — the outbreak of SARS.

Though recent numbers give the industry cause for optimism, it’s understandably tentative. Visiting other cultures has become a linchpin of the global economy, a $473 billion-a-year industry. No longer is it simply important; tourism has become a worldwide economic imperative.

In two weeks, the World Tourism Organization officially will become the first new United Nations specialized agency since 1985. Mexico is talking about recognizing tourism in its constitution.

“There’s a new awareness now of the importance of tourism on national economies and trade,” said Francesco Frangialli, the organization’s secretary-general. “People think tourism is the normal state of affairs. But when jobs disappear, they start paying attention.”

The Indonesian island of Bali, one of the world’s best-known tourist resorts, offers a particularly stark case study. In September 2002, 156,923 visitors arrived in Bali. The fatal bombing there, linked to al Qaeda, happened Oct. 12, and the tally of arrivals for that month was 86,901 — a decrease of nearly half.

Eighty percent of Bali’s population depends on the tourist economy for its livelihood, and Indonesian officials are struggling to entice visitors and ensure them that a Bali vacation — not to mention visits to other parts of the country — isn’t perilous.

“Bali is the icon of tourism in Indonesia. … If we want to recover in Indonesia, we have to recover in Bali first,” said Uddin Saifuddin, deputy of marketing for his country’s tourism and culture ministry.

Some countries have produced innovative solutions to the post-September 11 challenge.

Mexico and Canada, whose flow of tourists slowed when the United States tightened its borders security, have been promoting domestic tourism. In Nepal, wracked by a Maoist rebellion, a 50th-anniversary celebration of the conquering of Mount Everest produced good economic results.

Morocco, site of a deadly bombing in Casablanca May 16, has been encouraging tourism in its rural areas, bringing revenue to poorer regions while spreading out visitors from terrorism-prone larger cities.

At a roundtable called “Overcoming External Shocks,” participants took aim at what they called overzealousness by some nations in issuing travel advisories for citizens, saying the warnings were often alarmist and insufficiently researched.

“The poor are going to be marginalized by constant travel advisories that not only kill tourism, they kill livelihoods,” said Richard Gordon, the Philippines’ minister of tourism.

Participants said crises — be they terrorism, pestilence or natural disaster — can be offset by communication and savvy promotion. Still, few expect the global unrest that causes their problems to ebb any time soon.

“Maybe we will never go back to normal. Maybe this is the new normal,” said Francesco Madrid, Mexico’s undersecretary of tourism planning.

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