Bangkok Post 14-7-03

Capitalising on political events - The world of opportunities


Two significant developments last week underscored how politicians can prove to be either the boon or the bane of the travel and tourism industry.

In Europe, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder cancelled a private holiday to another country after some unsavoury remarks about German holiday- makers by an Italian politician. For heads of government to cancel official trips as a diplomatic rebuke is commonplace, but to cancel a holiday is a rarity indeed.

By contrast, positive news was coming out of the South Asian sub-continent where bus services resumed across the borders of political foes India and Pakistan, allowing cross-border flows of what is largely visiting friends and relatives traffic. All such direct travel between the two countries was suspended early last year following yet another Indo-Pakistani diplomatic row and is now being gradually re-instated as relations thaw.

Both these incidents prove that travel can be the first victim of political and diplomatic spats, as well as the first beneficiary of improved relations.

The average traveller and travel industry businessman would rather that politicians, if they cannot be part of the solution, at least try to avoid becoming part of the problem.

The decision by Mr Schroeder to take his business elsewhere could cost the Italian economy dearly if other Germans decide to follow suit.

Germany is one of the world’s largest generators of outbound visitors. German travel research firm F.U.R says, of the roughly 63 million Germans who went abroad in 2002, about six million went to Italy, making it their third most popular travel destination after the home market and Spain, well ahead of competing destinations such as Greece and Turkey.

Germans comprised about 7% of Italy’s total arrivals of 40 million in 2001, according to the World Tourism Organisation. They helped make Italy the world’s fourth-largest recipient of arrivals, generating an income of about US$25.8 billion.

If even a small percentage of those visitors decide to show their pique by cancelling their vacations, a la Mr Schroeder, it could mean hundreds of empty rooms in Italy.

In Bangkok, Thomas Nyfenegger, who oversees the German market for Diethelm Travel, said the prime beneficiaries of the spat in German-Italian relations would probably be Cyprus, Turkey, Portugal, Spain and other Mediterranean haunts.

However, Mr Nyfenegger said, the possibility of pulling at least some of that business to Thailand and other Southeast Asian beach resorts could be worth thinking about, especially if a quick tactical campaign can be mounted.

At the Pacific Asia Travel Association (Pata), CEO Peter de Jong said Pata had gone one step further. Last Friday, he dispatched a letter to the office of Mr Schroeder saying:

“We recently learned that you decided to change your family holiday plans. On Pata’s behalf it is my pleasure to invite you and your family to enjoy a holiday anywhere in Pacific Asia.

“Should you wish to go diving in the Maldives or Fiji, stay at a palace in Rajasthan, be pampered at a Balinese resort or an exclusive spa in Thailand, stroll in the shadows of Mt Fuji, sample the great wines of Australia or New Zealand or satisfy any other holiday wish anywhere in Pacific Asia, we will take you there and ensure your complete privacy.”

Mr de Jong stressed that he was not joking. The letter added: “Your presence in the region will send a strong signal to European travellers that they can and should return to this beautiful, exotic and hospitable part of the world. Asia-Pacific destinations are ‘open for business’ and your visit serves to prove it.”

Mr Schroeder may or may not accept the invitation. But closer to home, his counterpart leaders in India and Pakistan deserve some recognition for allowing the resumption of the Delhi-Lahore bus service. Air services are expected to follow, a move which will also benefit Thailand by allowing Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) to resume flights over Indian airspace on its Karachi-Bangkok sector.

This cancellation of overflights was partly responsible for the 16.33% reduction in Pakistani visitor arrivals to Thailand in 2002, down to 29,902. By contrast, Indian arrivals to Thailand last year surged 22.8% to 253,110.

While PIA did not suspend flights to Bangkok, effective Jan 15, 2002, it was forced to re-route two weekly flights over China and Hong Kong, converting what would otherwise be a short flight of barely five hours into a journey twice as long, a substantial increase in airline costs.

Political developments impacting on the travel industry are becoming more the rule than the exception.

Since Sept 11, 2001, Arabs and Muslims are not travelling to the United States, and vice-versa. Since the war in Iraq, Americans are not travelling to France and vice-versa.

Visa restrictions and travel advisories are only complicating the situation, especially as both are influenced by geopolitical developments and the rise and fall in political relations between countries.

The travel industry continues to believe that it can do nothing to influence political decisions. A few more political decisions and it might be forced to change its mind.

·        Imtiaz Muqbil is executive editor of Travel Impact Newswire, an e-mail- delivered feature and analysis service focusing on the Asia-Pacific travel industry.

NOTE: The articles introduced in this Clearinghouse do not necessarily represent the views of the Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (tim-team)