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Fixing Typhoon Yolanda’s Massive Misconceptions

The islands affected by the devastating typhoon don’t just need aid. They need to let the world know they are still is tourism business. Here’s the latest.

Monday, December 02, 2013
Caryn Eve Murray
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Unprecedented as it was, Typhoon Yolanda, which caused more than 4,000 deaths, nearly 19,000 injuries, and tens of millions of dollars worth of damage across seven regions of the Philippines, is not likely to be the biggest event to hit those small Pacific islands this year. Grander still have been the acts of charity that swept over the damaged landscape within hours of the megastorm -- from the American Red Cross, AmeriCares, Operation USA, the International Rescue Committee – and from many countries, including the U.S., which sent $20-million worth of aid.

A similar steady infusion of confidence in the islands’ resilient tourism industry is expected to play just as big a role in its own rebuilding, even as the Philippines’ infrastructure and its people’s lives heal from the mammoth Nov. 8 storm.

The Pacific Asia Travel Association immediately reached out to its affected members, launching a program of support, said PATA spokesman Tiwarat Phaisanwiphatpong, writing in an email from the group’s Bangkok headquarters. He said the trade group continues to keep close tabs on tourism recovery there and is coordinating the work of its PATA Relief Fund with the Department of Tourism in the Philippines.

Raising aid among members has been just as important as battling erroneous public perceptions of a flattened island nation -- and both tasks have kept his office busy, said Klaus Billep, chapter secretariat of PATA’s Southern California chapter in Santa Monica.

“We are trying to do our best to find out what can we do and meanwhile PATA has set up a fund for the Philippines for donations, and chapters are supporting it,” Billep said. “That’s what they are doing. In previous events, like the tsunami in Thailand, PATA was very instrumental in assisting the local tourism organizations.”

But donations still don’t provide the necessary geography lessons that break down travelers’ misperceptions about the scope of the damage.

“Anytime you have something like this published in the media … people say no, this is not the place to go, let’s go somewhere else,” Billep said. “Why expose yourself to whatever uncertainties there are? So people say let’s go somewhere else. That’s the way it is. If it is in Canada and there is a disaster on the West Coast of Canada, that doesn’t mean it is going to affect the East Coast. It is a big country and they are quite far away.

“But with the Philippines, most people don’t know the geography so people say ‘maybe we just shouldn’t go,” he said.

The Philippine DOT website has attempted to tackle this gap in travelers’ geographic savvy, noting that though the repair work is challenging, it will not require a wholesale reconstruction job of the nation’s travel industry.

The tourism year was shaping up to be an optimistic one, and DOT officials had reported only weeks earlier, that Philippine tourism numbers were upbeat this summer. Visitor arrivals grew in August of this year by 11.28 percent – from 2.85 million in 2012 to 3.18 million this year.

“This figure represented 57.83 percent of the targeted arrivals for 2013,” reported the DOT website. “The 3.18 million arrivals marked another milestone as it is the first time that visitor arrivals achieved the three million figure in August.”

The typhoon hit and suddenly, it seemed, all bets were off. The website stepped in again with an attempted reassurance:

“The Philippines remains a safe and fun destination for all tourists,” read a news release posted on the DOT website on Nov. 18 – just 10 days after the typhoon swept through.

“Tourism activities continue in the country’s different regions, each with its own feature destinations and products. The Visayas region, despite Typhoon Haiyan, plays host to several top destinations such as Boracay, Cebu, Bohol, Iloilo and Bacolod. … Our top destinations and product offerings remain intact and accessible,” it read.

In the areas affected, however, the immediate season was indeed lost -- but the longer outlook, even there, can certainly be salvaged, said Peter Tarlow, a travel and tourism consultant specializing in risk management.

“For the short term, they will certainly be hurt,” Tarlow said. “In the long term, the only thing I think that would really hurt them is if this [storm] is not seen as the exception to the rule. If they start getting five a year in a particular season, it will knock out that season. Even rain would be almost as bad, because going on a resort that is golf, sun and sand, if you don’t have golf, sun and sand, it won’t matter whether it is a tropical storm, a rainstorm, or a typhoon. The result all ends up being the same thing.”

Reputation recovery against meteorological insult is one of the critical actions Philippine hoteliers travel professionals must take, he said, and that means fine-tuning any crisis response plans they might have.

“This is not the first typhoon to hit the Philippines but if they don’t have a plan ready for something, the question is why,” Tarlow said. “If the Philippines were to ask me, I would say start in about one month’s time with a real campaign that says, ‘Show your support, come visit us. This was a once-in-a-lifetime event and your tourism dollar helps us to rebuild.’ Hopefully they have a marketing plan and if not, get one now. Don’t deny, don’t lie. Tell the truth. Get the public sympathy and plan.

“‘You are coming to the Philippines and you will help us.’ People can understand that.”

Caryn Eve Murray
Associate Editor
Hotel Interactive Editorial Division

Bio: Caryn Eve Murray is a freelance writer and an assistant editor on the news desk at Newsday on Long Island. During her tenure as a business writer for New York Newsday, she covered the city's small business community for which she won the Distinguished Business Reporting Award of Excellence from the New York Newspaper Publishers Association. She has also been a feature columnist and writer and has ...
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