The appearance of security and tourist perceptions

Ever since 2004, I have had the privilege of working with one of Canada’s top boutique market research firms, Insignia, on a wide variety of different projects, many of which have looked at tourism.   I’ve learned a LOT about how the tourism market operates globally – what drives people to travel to specific destinations, what pushes people to buy a package and, possibly most importantly, what turns them off about some destinations.  Today,  three articles caught my attention dealing with the linkages of security and tourism.

The first article comes from BBC and is entitled Danish Woman gang-raped in Indian capital Delhi.  Now, Delhi has had several problems with gang rape cases over the past year and police have moved quickly as have local politicians to assure the general public that this will not happen in the future.  In other words, police and politicians have done everything right in an attempt to show that Delhi and India area “safe” destinations.  Despite these actions, however, this particular rape case will, in all probability, have a chilling effect on tourism to Delhi in particular and India in general.

Why, you might ask, will it have a chilling effect?  Well, in order to answer that, we need to look at how the particular case is being constructed.  Andrew North, BBC’s correspondent reporting on the story, notes that:

Scrutiny of sexual violence in India has grown since the 2012 gang rape and murder of a student on a Delhi bus.

The government tightened laws on sexual violence last year after widespread protests following the attack.

But violence and discrimination against women remain deeply entrenched in India’s staunchly patriarchal society.

The last sentence constructs the interpretive framework that North provides the reading public: India is “patriarchal” which means “violence and discrimination against women”.  As an Anthropologist who, incidentally, was raised by and as a feminist, I cringe whenever I hear such blithe assertions.  Are there sexual inequalities in India?  Certainly there are, but such a simplistic statement belies simple facts such as India’s greatest Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, being female and the numerous women who run top corporations in India (see here for a recent list).

The reason why this report, along with others, will have a chilling effect is not that India is “patriarchal” but, rather, because there is a growing problem with perceptions of security for women who travel to India.

The second story I read today on this issue came from Travel Weekly, and was entitled Assurances in wake of Hamburg unrest. The story started with a quick recap of the events:

The city of Hamburg took a beating over the holidays as riots broke out in the streets over refugee rights. It was some of the worst unrest seen in the country in years, so much so that the U.S. Embassy in Berlin issued the following warning on Jan. 7: “U.S. Embassy Berlin informs U.S. citizens that as a result of violent protests in December, the Hamburg police have established a 24/7 restricted zone covering a large area of the city of Hamburg, including the city’s nightlife area.”

Now, what is interesting about this recap version is how the rioters were portrayed in other reports.  Euronews, for instance, describes the riots this way:

Violence has erupted at a protest in Hamburg over the closure of a left wing community centre.

Police moved in after bottles, stones and fireworks were thrown at officers.

There were about four-and-a-half thousand left-wing radicals among seven thousand demonstrators, according to police.

More than 80 officers and an unknown number of demonstrators were injured in the clashes on Saturday.

Videos of the riots made it on to YouTube as well (13:44 minutes), providing that added “sight & sound” piquancy.

The intriguing thing, to me at least, is the characterization of the rioters as either over “refugee rights” or as being “left wing radicals”.  Of course, both are possible, but “refugee rights” only seems to show up in the reports aimed at North American audiences.  Indeed, the Travel Weekly article points out an interesting fact: the international media did not appear to be covering this event in anywhere near the detail as with similar riots in Greece and Turkey.

So, what are we seeing here?  Well, one point to mention is that the German tourism industry is very strong and very well connected in the international market (I’ve been extremely impressed with some of their work).  This is partly shown in the article which notes

Ricarda Lindner, regional manager of the German National Tourist Office, USA, agreed, adding: “The … protests [that took] place in Hamburg have not deterred or caused any cancellations or other issues for North American travellers at this time.”

… the Hamburg Tourist Board launched an online Travel Agent Training Program on Jan. 7, the first program of its kind in Germany. ….

Agents who complete the free, on-demand course receive a Hamburg Specialist certification, and those who do so this year are enrolled in a contest to win a five-day trip for two to Hamburg. The Hamburg Tourist Board expects to reach up to 1,000 agents during the first year.

Smart.  Very, VERY smart.

A second point concerns exactly how the rioters were described.  For the North American market, “refugee rights” is pretty much a non-starter, at least in terms of sympathetic reactions (compare that with, say, “illegal aliens” in the U.S.).  “Left-wing radicals”, however, does have a fairly high emotional connotation which ties back in both with valorized myths of 1960’s hippy, anti-war protesters and, also, with current movements such as Occupy, and the anti-G8/G20 protests.  Given the target audience in North America for tourists to Germany (~$70k+) who are mainly doing either cultural or heritage tourism, “refugee rights” is probably the most neutral term that can be used, and it seems to be working, at least according to the story.

Ricarda Lindner, regional manager of the German National Tourist Office, USA, agreed, adding: “The … protests [that took] place in Hamburg have not deterred or caused any cancellations or other issues for North American travellers at this time.”

Put simply, and despite the riots, Hamburg in particular and Germany as a whole is still perceived as being “safe”; unlike Delhi.

The final story, also from Travel Weekly, is entitled Sochi Olympics a tough sell even before Volgograd bombings.  The article is worth reading in full, but one just jumped out at me:

Stengele [Anbritt Stengele, president of Chicago-based Sports Traveler] said she is sending fewer than 50 people to Sochi, compared with the 350 she sent to the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008.

Wow. One seventh?!?!  Why?

In addition to Sochi’s remote location and the unfavorable PR for Russia in the lead-up to the Games, most notably surrounding anti-gay legislation enacted earlier this year, a series of deadly bombings in the southern Russian city of Volgograd last week cast another pall over the Games.

Now, the sales figures quoted in the article are all American and, after all, there have been a few, minor tensions in the past between the United States and Russia (you know, Snowden, the invasion of Georgia, that whole Cold War thing….) that would have some impact on American attendance.  Still, the official American delegation will include Billy Jean King, even if President Obama, Vice President Biden and the First Lady will be absent.

But with figures THAT low, it really indicates something more profound than a little political antipathy or concern that Americans might be hassled at the airport (they are, after all, used to that).  I would suggest, and that is all it is – a suggestion – that more Americans are concerned about their security in going to the Sochi Olympics in part because the “terrorists” are affiliated with Al Qeada.  Despite the demise of Bin Laden, Al Qeada is still being used as the boogey man in much of American popular discourse, as a recent Washington Post article noted.

Which brings us back to the problem of perceptions of security.  In the Delhi case, a perception seems to be forming in the West that India is “unsafe” because it is “patriarchal”.  In the Hamburg case, Hamburg and Germany are viewed as “safe” in large part because of “Teutonic efficiency”.  In the Sochi case, perceptions of safety appear to have been constructed both directly by the Administration and indirectly by the GWOT (Global War On Tourism Terror).  And in every case, how these perceptions are constructed, maintained and countered is crucial to attracting tourists.

Marc Tyrrell

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