Our world is a topsy-turvy place, with no end of unforeseen events sent to try us. War, internal strife, natural and man-made disasters arrive unbidden and deliver untold disruption and suffering. Headlines are typically so dramatic we often overlook some of the less obvious outcomes. Among these, the death of tourism is generally instantaneous, often wildly out of synch with reality, and historically hard to reverse.
But we’ve come a long way since the days where our local travel agent and the daily papers were our only sources of guidance on whether a place was “safe to visit.” Those sources, both unwilling to put their customers (or readers) in harm’s way, would generally take a conservative line; after all, it’s easy to suggest Hawaii as an alternative to Mexico, or Turkey as an option to Egypt.
But today’s travelers are much, much better informed, and can draw on a myriad of sources when making decisions about whether they should try a “risky” destination. Mexico is a good case in point: it doesn’t take much research to see that the majority of the violence has been restricted to certain border areas, well away from the key resort towns. Reaching out to friends on Facebook or other travelers on Tripadvisor et al you can quickly establish—first-hand, from people like you—that the sun is shining, hotel rates are attractive, and there’s no sign of trouble.
Greece is another good example of a formerly top-tier destination fallen on hard times. But now? The days of demonstrations are over, the country has settled down with a new government, and everyone is looking forward to a summer where every visitor will be welcomed with open arms. Not only is it “back to business,” but prices have fallen and travelers have more options within the reach of their budget than they would have found a few years ago.
In fact, tourism is so important to the Greek economy that politicians there are talking about a three percent jump in GDP driven by growing tourism numbers from their current levels of 16 million arrivals per year, to 20 million per year. The Greek National Tourism Organization wants you to visit, and they’ll be using Twitter, Facebook and every other means at their disposal to convince you their troubles are a distant memory.
Some troubled destinations present more complex challenges. Christchurch, New Zealand suffered two major earthquakes in 2011 and saw much of its hotel accommodation disappear overnight. It’s hard to recover from a shock of that nature, but tourism companies and savvy travelers quickly found alternative accommodation outside the centre of town or in neighboring cities; after all, this is New Zealand, and nothing is very far away. Walk around Christchurch today and you’ll be surrounded by tourists who have rejigged their itineraries to spend more time in Auckland, Wellington or Queenstown, but were not so put off by 2011’s quakes that they would miss this beautiful city.
Japan is another destination that suffered a catastrophe which we, on the outside, saw as being “in Japan.” Inside the country, though, it was always understood to affect a region of about 50 miles around the Fukushima Power Plant, which, frankly, was never a big tourist draw anyway. But the spillover effect took hold and overseas visitors cancelled their trips to Tokyo and Kyoto, even though both are hundreds of miles away and in no danger from the earthquake, tsunami, or subsequent events at the power plant.
While 2011 was a terrible year for Japan tourism, the passage of time has been kind, and 2012 travelers are dusting off their Japan itineraries, apparently secure in the knowledge that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place. Japan’s very nature—it’s part of Asia, but more unlike the rest of Asia than any other Asian country—means it’s not a country you can easily take off your list of “must-sees.”
I have one more destination to consider in this random rundown of “tourism-troubled” destinations: Colombia, where tourist numbers for the last 12 months are up 300% on 2006. Three hundred! The Government’s relentless war on FARC (the communist insurgents) has seen the civil war relegated to the inside pages of the newspapers, replaced by news of economic growth, football, and the evening activities of visiting Secret Service Agents. And we tourists have responded, lured by the beauty—and apparent safety—of Bogotá, Medellin, and Cartagena.
Nowadays, it seems, nowhere is off limits, no matter what the circumstances, no matter what the catastrophe. There always was some brave soul who wanted to travel in war zones, to see the hot lava as it spewed down the mountain-side, or watch the revolution unfold. Now that brave soul is being followed close at heel by you and me… and that’s a good thing, for all concerned.