Japan and beyond: Fresh challenges for tourism

Thursday, 24 March 2011 00:02 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The recent earthquake, tsunami and the possibility of radioactive leaks from the affected nuclear reactors would make all of us, as citizens of this only planet we have, stand up and take note.

Its power of destruction far exceeded that of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that hit us here and several of our neighbours along the way. Thankfully, Japan’s preparedness had reduced what could have been much more extensive loss of life during this catastrophe.

Given the ways in which we, the human race, ventured to batter Mother Nature in our growth efforts during the last half century, her wrath is unleashed on us with greater frequency than we have ever known in recorded human history.

Today, the ‘doomsday soothsayers,’ some among them form a posse of climate scientists, who for some time now have voiced the possible onslaughts of disaster, are thankfully given a more respectful ear than before. Yet, what is found wanting is in the actual action front.

Responsibility of all

The key lesson we learn from all of this is that there is a need for all of us as human beings to ‘be prepared’ for any eventuality, much like the Scout movement’s motto taught us as kids. It is the responsibility of us all to work on the basis that precious human life once lost cannot be recalled and need protection to the fullest, while material and economic losses could be regained with time and effort.

This week the UN World Tourism Organisation is holding its regional meetings in Colombo and I am sure that safety issues of visitors and preparedness of the industry in facing and handling natural disasters will form part of the agenda of discussion.

The UNWTO, as the organisation that spearheaded tourism industry awareness creation on climate change and global warming issues and focussed attention on the responsibility of destinations towards ensuring the safety of visitors, has an even greater responsibility now to steer its members in this direction with much more vigour.  

Lessons learnt

Just last week, an industry colleague, Dr. David Beirman of the Sydney University of Technology’s Department of Tourism, had this to say on the lessons to be learnt of the tsunami disaster in an article he wrote in e-Travel News. In my mind, he hit the nail squarely on its head, on this issue, with the exciting preamble: “At the very moment Japan was experiencing the most powerful earthquake in its modern history and tsunamis were inundating large swathes of the NE coast of Honshu, I was the final speaker addressing a local government tourism conference in Sydney (Australia) and warning the 120 delegates, including 30 mayors, about the importance of enacting zoning and building regulations especially for tourism infrastructure, which would minimise exposure to sea surges, storms, river flooding and tsunamis. This chilling coincidence was brought home to me as I drove away from the conference and heard on my car radio the first reports of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.” He went on to state: “Japan’s catastrophic tsunami should finally shock into action the legions of coastal hoteliers, resort owners and the government authorities which determine building and zoning codes in the pleasure periphery globally. It is time to stop building and permitting the building of death traps.

“The arguments in favour of developing and constructing resorts are familiar. The market demands on-the-water accommodation so developers build them. Perhaps for weeks, months, years and even decades, resort rooms next to and even over the water, hosted happy holiday makers until, on 26 December 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami resulted in the death of over 5,000 tourists on the Andaman Sea coast in Thailand alone.”

Some got it right

Commending the efforts of the local authorities in Phuket, Thailand, he said they “did make some important changes to building and zoning regulations as they applied to hotels and resorts to minimise exposure to future sea surges. Firstly, the new resorts in Phuket are required to be located on high ground. Secondly, existing multi-story resorts can only locate accommodation from the first floor.”

Quoting the consequences of cases of inaction he pointed out how “in September 2009, tourists staying in on-sea resorts and tourist fales were among the 140 killed in the tsunami, which hit the Upolu island in Samoa”. This, according to him, “was because many of the earlier damaged tourism structures have been rebuilt on the same extremely vulnerable sites on which they were inundated, because there is no government regulation to stop them”.

In his concluding remarks he questioned the intents of local authorities and developers thus: “Are seaside resorts and hoteliers and the government authorities which approve their developments obsessed only with chasing money? It appears they would rather risk the lives of their guests and locals who work in these resorts than consider siting their hotels and resorts on safer ground, which can still afford a sea or an ocean view and access to the sea, free of the risk of inundation.” As a case in point, he cited the fale accommodation at Lalomanu beach, Samoa, which upon being destroyed during the 2009 tsunami, was relocated inland and up high, bringing tourists to this most popular beach only during the day.

Strict regulation

He stated: “It is imperative for tourism officials, governments and the hotel and resort industry to take an uncompromising stand on the issue of hotel and resort location and building regulations. If the tourist market is not prepared to recognise the very real risk of on-beach accommodation, then this sort of accommodation should be treated like cigarettes. Users are warned and providers are taxed to the hilt.” He added: “If both tourists and coastal accommodation operators still don’t get the message, then perhaps tourists who choose to stay in risky locations should be denied travel insurance coverage. These proposals are extreme, but they are designed to make the key point that the paramount responsibility of the tourism industry is to enable the industry and its customers to fulfil their dreams in safety.”

Contd.on page 14

(Renton de Alwis is a former Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism serving two terms during 2000-2002 and again from 2007-2008. He served as Head of the Asia Division of the Pacific Asia Travel Association – PATA – based in Singapore from 1990-96 and as CEO of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore from 1997-99. He also served as a Chief Technical Advisor and consultant with the ADB, UNDP, UNWTO, ESCAP, UNICEF and the ILO. Now in retirement, Renton lives away from Colombo in the Deep South of Sri Lanka and is involved in writing and social activism. He can be contacted at [email protected].)

Japan and beyond: Fresh challenges for tourism

Factor of differentiation

During my own work as a tourism administrator, I had the opportunity to examine many plans and proposals for tourism development in several lands. Some were excellent, some mediocre and others in between. If I were to seek a common denominator for what differentiated the excellent from the mediocre, it would certainly be the length of the planning horizon or the ‘life’ of the undertaking. The longer the planning horizon or the life of the ‘project,’ the stronger the considerations were for ensuring that sustainable practises were in place together with in-built mechanisms for the conservation of resources and safety considerations. We have more than often heard that tourism should not be a short-term gain seeking business activity. It is about ‘selling people beautiful dreams’ and the responsibility of all in this pursuit is expected to be to make them as colourful as possible, ensuring that they do not turn into nightmares. In the same breath, we hear that tourism is an industry that brings in rapid rates of return on investment than most other businesses.

The dichotomy

In a world where investment funds move from place to place seeking the most attractive bottom-line considerations and most investors work on the dictum that ‘in the long term we are all dead,’ this indeed is a dichotomy those who want to invest in tourism often face.

It is also not a dichotomy that individual investors or operators could resolve, for, like most in business, they would be aiming at ensuring that their shareholders will get the most ROI in the shortest possible time. Their escape from the guilt of taking this route will be to indulge in CSR pursuits of the ‘do good’ type with some of the profits they make.

In these circumstances the responsibility of ensuring that long-term sustainable practises will take precedence over the short term will fall squarely into the laps of government as policy makers and regulators of the industry.

Although I am not a proponent of too much government intervention in the tourism industry, given the disastrous nature of the consequences of inaction on the issues of safety and sustainability could have on human life, imposition and implementation of strict instruments of regulatory control are recommended, much like was pointed out by Dr. Beirman.

Another option

The other option before us will be to consider moveable accommodation options and to-scale developments (camp type resorts, mobile recreation vehicles and clustered semi-permanent facilities using environment friendly materials) for much of the tourism operations in vulnerable areas. Vulnerability is here defined not only as being disaster prone, but also with the potential of making a higher negative impact on the environment.

The ideal would be for the industry to determine safety standards and impose self-regulation. But the sad reality is that we live in an imperfect world where greed and short term bottom-line considerations take over, placing the common good and sustainability considerations on the back-burners of much of business decision making.

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