EARLIER THIS MONTH IN KENYA, election-related violence rocked a country that usually attracts tourists. But other recent catastrophes have indicated that today's sophisticated traveler may not be easily deterred when problems beset a destination.
Travelers seem to have developed their own sensitive antennae to sort through the thicket of travel advisories that are issued after a natural disaster or political upheaval. This may account for the small number of Kenya cancellations reported by U.S. tour operators.
Nearly 500 people were killed in Kenya in clashes over President Mwai Kibaki's disputed election victory, which led to travel advisories from such European Union countries as the U.K., France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and Portugal, as well as a travel alert by the United States.
In response, the state-run Kenya Tourism Federation appointed Jake Grieves-Cook, managing director of Gamewatchers Safaris, as KTF spokesman until further notice. Detailed daily reports and updates from the KTF have provided on-the-ground information about boosted security and a return to normalcy in Nairobi and Mombasa.
The destination was also well-served by the KTF's call for travel advisories to be modified to avoid a collapse of tourism, which would have a massive negative impact on the country's economy. Kenya can take some reassurance from other places that rallied after turmoil threatened their tourism industries.
Thailand was hit by the tsunami in late 2004, and TV news images of the devastation it wrought dominated the airwaves for weeks. But Thailand is proving to be a resilient destination. A 2007 survey conducted by Visa International and the Pacific Asia Travel Association of 5,000 international travelers from 10 markets around the world found Thailand to be the No. 1 preferred destination in Asia.
Thailand's neighbor, Malaysia, has had to deal with a perception problem post-9/11, since the majority of its population is Muslim. Despite the potential setbacks for these two countries, Paula Quon, travel consultant at San Francisco-based Supreme Travel, says she has seen a bump in bookings.
"Hong Kong, Japan and China are quite expensive, and [clients are] choosing Thailand and Malaysia for the value they represent," she says. "They may be hesitant to book travel to the Middle East, to such countries as Egypt and Jordan, but they're unfazed when it comes to Southeast Asia." Quon's clients cite Malaysia's promotional efforts as the spark that got them interested in visiting the country.
Thailand has taken proactive measures to make visitors feel safe. It created a National Disaster Warning Centre (NDWC) to process information on seismic activity in the region. Last month the NDWC installed 79 warning towers in coastal provinces and launched a U.S.-funded deep-sea buoy in the Indian Ocean to detect tidal waves. Warnings are issued in Thai, English, Chinese, Japanese, German and Swedish.
People in the travel industry can step in and help as destinations struggle to overcome a tragedy. In the aftermath of 9/11, "I realized that the only way for our business to recover, and to recover as a country, was for people to get back to traveling," says Sho Dozono, president and CEO of Portland, OR-based Azumano Travel. He and his wife, Loen, came up with an idea they called Flight to Freedom, a group trip to New York City as a show of support. Thanks to coverage from the local media, Flight to Freedom burgeoned into a group of 1,000 people.
Dozono also was a leader in booking groups to Phuket, Thailand, after the tsunami and took part in relief and humanitarian efforts for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
"As a responsible tourism leader, we need to assist the region in any way we can in the recovery process," says Dozono.
Not all destinations make a quick comeback from turmoil. Oaxaca, Mexico, is still struggling to overcome the negative impact of political unrest that virtually shut the city down for a period in 2006, and a U.S. travel advisory remains in effect.