Saving face and promoting tourist safety in south east Asia

Anti-government demonstrations in Thailand are impacting on the country’s tourism. AAP

Anti-government demonstrations in Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, have culminated in the government declaring a state of emergency for 60 days over the city. The Thai government hopes that the restriction and curfews imposed on street demonstrations will restore calm. However, the 2010 Red Shirt riots in Bangkok demonstrated this can’t be guaranteed.

The events in Bangkok, coupled with growing diplomatic tensions between Australia and Indonesia, are likely to make Australian travellers jittery about visiting two of their favourite south east Asian destinations. Australian government travel advisories to both countries have raised the level of caution in recent days.

Both countries rate among the most popular tourist destinations for Australians. In 2013, 880,000 Australians visited Bali and 900,000 visited Thailand. Thailand’s current unrest is confined to Bangkok. The popular resort island of Phuket, where many tourists fly to directly from Australia, is calm. However, the unrest in Bangkok damages Thailand’s carefully cultivated image as a safe tourist destination and has led the Thai Tourism Authority to temporarily suspend active marketing of the city.

Although few have Australians cancelled their summer holiday visits to Bali, the mysterious deaths of Queensland woman Noelene Bischoff and her daughter Yvana should be causing concern to Indonesian tourism authorities. Media reports have linked the deaths to eating a meal in a Bali restaurant, but the Queensland coroner is still investigating.

Noelene and Yvana Bischoff’s deaths in Bali are being investigated. AAP

Added to the concerns are the political tensions between Australia and Indonesia around asylum seeker policy, dominated by recent reports of boats being turned back. The memory remains of the Bali terrorist attacks in 2002, which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, and again in 2005, where 20 people were killed (including four Australians).

Messages of reassurance

Logically, Indonesian tourism authorities should issue messages of reassurance that Bali is a safe and welcoming destination for Australians. Australians represent 15% of Indonesia’s inbound tourism market. However, no such message has been issued by Indonesian government tourism authorities. Indonesia’s government, like others in the Asia-Pacific region, is reluctant to issue pre-arrival safety warnings or advice to travellers.

Many ASEAN governments believe they risk losing “face” by admitting potential dangers. Traditionally, Indonesia has been an outspoken critic of cautionary Western (especially Australian) government travel advisories which highlight security and safety risks in ASEAN nations. As I have previously written, since 2002, ASEAN heads of government and tourism ministers have condemned cautionary western government travel advisories as hostile to ASEAN countries.

In an article for The Conversation, Monika Winarnita and Nicholas Herriman explained the importance of saving face in relations with Asia. The concept of face or reputation arouses extreme sensitivity throughout south eastern Asia. Most south east Asian tourist destinations seek to present a bright and trouble-free face to prospective travellers and stakeholders. Generally, government destination marketing organisations promote only the virtues of their destination and either ignore or airbrush negatives.

Poor reviews

The issue of saving face dominated a recent high level tourism industry forum held in Bangkok. The Thai tourism industry is concerned about its reputation. Tourism is now Thailand’s principal source of foreign earnings. In 2013, a record 26.7 million international tourists visited Thailand, and both the Thai Tourism Authority and the Thai Ministry of Tourism are forecasting 30 million international arrivals by 2015.

Although current demonstrations have been confined to central Bangkok, Thailand’s tourism ministry and tourism industry are very concerned about negative international perceptions.

Websites such as TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet include extensive cautionary advice on tourism safety in Thailand, ranging from descriptions of problems with the roads, scams, corruption, spiked drinks, and criminals targeting tourists. In the UK, an eight-part series of one-hour tabloid television documentaries called Big Trouble in Thailand screened in 2009 and 2013, depicting Thailand as a dangerous destination, despite the fact many problems experienced by western tourists in Thailand and other south east Asian destinations are self-inflicted due to an over-indulgence of drugs, alcohol and risky behaviour.

Sensationalist programs like this have caused Thai tourism authorities to worry the country’s reputation is being harmed.

A number of organisers of November’s Thailand Safety and Security Forum called on official Thai sources to provide accurate pre-arrival tourism safety and security advice as a way of enhancing its authority and reputation.

The main barrier to achieving this approach is the concept of face. Thais are sensitive to criticism from foreigners (Ferang) and spokesmen from the Thai Tourism Authority, including its governor Surpahon Svetasreni, pointed out the admission of safety and security concerns in official government tourism promotion literature could be misread as an official admission that Thailand is dangerous.

The mood may be changing, however. The Thai Tourism Authority’s January advice, issued to tourists about avoiding demonstrations in Bangkok, suggests the authority is at least implementing the advice from the conference.

The Thai Tourism Authority has finally recognised that proactive safety warnings will gain it credibility as opposed to losing face. ASEAN countries have become increasingly sophisticated in managing tourism risk and security in recent years.

However, it appears that many south east Asian government tourism authorities will only refer to security and safety risks in their destination marketing when their reputational backs are against the wall.

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