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Gov­ern­ment travel ad­vi­sories are a hot topic among tourism in­sid­ers, re­ports Barry Oliver

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

BALI is on course for a record year for tourism with sun­seek­ers from across the world head­ing to the In­done­sian hol­i­day is­land in big num­bers. In­ter­na­tional ar­rivals jumped 35 per cent from Jan­uary to June this year com­pared with the same pe­riod in 2006.

But Aussies aren’t go­ing to the Bali party. Aus­tralian ar­rivals are down 35 per cent com­pared with Jan­uary to June 2005, a sit­u­a­tion many in Bali blame squarely on Can­berra’s De­part­ment of For­eign Af­fairs and Trade travel ad­vi­sory, which urges Aussies to re­con­sider their need to travel there be­cause of ‘‘ a very high threat of ter­ror­ist at­tack’’.

Yet the UN is plan­ning to hold a key two-week global warm­ing con­fer­ence, part of the Ky­oto pro­to­col, on the is­land in early De­cem­ber. More than 180 coun­tries will be rep­re­sented.

It’s a sit­u­a­tion Brett Morgan finds con­fus­ing and he says the same ap­plies to many Bali busi­ness own­ers.

‘‘ There will be 10,000 del­e­gates and world lead­ers all com­ing to an is­land that Aus­tralians shouldn’t travel to as it’s ap­par­ently un­safe,’’ he says.

Last Novem­ber, Morgan set up the Lit­tle Bali Ho­tel & Re­sort Com­pany, which was be­hind the ‘‘ Where the Bali hell are you?’’ pro­mo­tional cam­paign, an ef­fort to sway pub­lic opin­ion in the is­land’s favour. But he says it is a hard task with the DFAT level four ad­vi­sory in place.

‘‘ Re­cently Le­banon had mis­siles hail­ing down on it ev­ery day and it was at a lower level than Bali. How can that pos­si­bly be?’’ he ques­tions.

‘‘ In­done­sia doesn’t have an ac­tive tourist board so it doesn’t re­lay what has been done since the bomb­ings . . . an ex­tra 1000 po­lice, ID checks, CCTV in main streets. All th­ese have been very ef­fec­tive.

‘‘ Ev­ery­one wants the Aus­tralians back: they have a longer stay than the Ja­panese, they spend a good amount of money. It’s an im­por­tant mar­ket.’’

He said Aus­tralia would do well to fol­low the ex­am­ple of Ja­pan, where cit­i­zens are sim­ply told by the gov­ern­ment whether they should travel to a cer­tain des­ti­na­tion or not. In­stead DFAT’s travel ad­vi­sories are rated from one to five: Be alert to your own se­cu­rity (one); ex­er­cise cau­tion (two); ex­er­cise a high de­gree of cau­tion (three); re­con­sider the need to travel (four); ad­vised not to travel (five).

At the time of writ­ing only six coun­tries were in the top bracket: Afghanistan, Bu­rundi, Cen­tral African Repub­lic, Iraq, So­ma­lia and Su­dan. Bali sat in the next level down along with 21 other coun­tries, in­clud­ing Burma, Le­banon, Zim­babwe and Sri Lanka.

Fiji, where vis­i­tor ar­rivals for the first eight months of this year were 7.2 per cent down on the same pe­riod last year, is also un­happy about the level of travel warn­ing, which at one stage had the is­land na­tion on a par with Iraq.

It’s down to level two, but Cher­rill Wat­son, di­rec­tor of mar­ket­ing of the Fiji Is­lands Vis­i­tors Bureau, says a drop in oc­cu­pancy lev­els at key ho­tels has caused huge job losses and the econ­omy in gen­eral has suf­fered a knock-on ef­fect since the De­cem­ber 5 coup.

‘‘ At no time since has there been any vi­o­lence in Fiji. Think about the tan­gi­ble un­rest ex­pe­ri­enced in so many other tourist des­ti­na­tions. No tourist was even re­motely in dan­ger and yet the ad­vi­sories re­main in place.’’

She says in­sur­ance cov­er­age can be af­fected when a coun­try im­poses a travel ad­vi­sory and as a re­sult there are sub­stan­tial can­cel­la­tions of high-yield cor­po­rate, sport­ing and in­cen­tive groups, which have a long book­ing lead time.

Her col­league, Paresh Pant, re­gional di­rec­tor Aus­tralia, Fiji Is­lands Vis­i­tors Bureau, con­cedes it isn’t just travel ad­vi­sories that have harmed Fiji’s frag­ile tourism in­dus­try, which ac­counts for nearly half the coun­try’s econ­omy.

He says television and press pic­tures of coups are images that last. But he would like to see con­sul­ta­tion with op­er­a­tors in Fiji ‘‘ though the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment ob­vi­ously has a duty to pro­tect its cit­i­zens’’.

Pant says events in Fiji re­ceive more me­dia cov­er­age in Aus­tralia than in coun­tries fur­ther afield, so the pub­lic here is more aware of what is hap­pen­ing.

Bali’s Morgan ac­cuses the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment of ‘‘ wishy-washy ad­vice’’ and be­ing ul­tra-cau­tious. In the past, For­eign Min­is­ter Alexan­der Downer has made no apolo­gies for that: ‘‘ We do err on the side of cau­tion and the Aus­tralian pub­lic I think would ex­pect us to do that.’’

That cau­tion is ap­par­ent when sift­ing through the present ad­vi­sories. At the time of writ­ing, even ul­tra-safe Sin­ga­pore rated a level two ‘‘ ex­er­cise cau­tion’’ warn­ing.

DFAT, which claims 70 per cent of de­part­ing Aus­tralian trav­ellers are aware of its ad­vi­sories, is pump­ing $13 mil­lion over four years into a TV, press and in­ter­net cam­paign pro­mot­ing its Smart Trav­eller web­site. A par­al­lel drive aimed at a nonEnglish-speak­ing au­di­ence pushes the mes­sage in Ara­bic, Chi­nese, Greek, Ital­ian, Span­ish and Viet­namese.

The www.smar­trav­eller.gov.au site has had more than 20 mil­lion page hits this year and 28,000 sub­scribers are hav­ing new or up­dated travel ad­vi­sories emailed to them as they are is­sued. Its au­to­mated phone ser­vice has re­ceived 28,000 calls in the past year.

A DFAT spokesper­son says it is dif­fi­cult to iso­late the ef­fects of changes in travel ad­vice from the events, of­ten widely re­ported in the me­dia, that trig­ger it.

‘‘ The Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment has a pol­icy to ad­vise its cit­i­zens of po­ten­tial risks and threats . . . we do so with­out any po­lit­i­cal, com­mer­cial or other mo­tive.’’

Th­ese warn­ings are ob­vi­ously a sen­si­tive is­sue: ques­tions for this ar­ti­cle had to be emailed to DFAT for con­sid­er­a­tion. There’s also fric­tion at gov­ern­ment-to­gov­ern­ment level: Morgan says In­done­sia’s lead­ers and Bali busi­ness groups have ap­pealed to Can­berra to re­con­sider the level of warn­ing.

Travel agents play a role in pass­ing on the in­for­ma­tion: the Aus­tralian Fed­er­a­tion of Travel Agents sits on an ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee with DFAT but chief ex­ec­u­tive Mike Hat­ton says the Gov­ern­ment has ac­cess to private sources of in­for­ma­tion. On the level of warn­ings for dif­fer­ent coun­tries, Hat­ton com­ments that it is ‘‘ en­tirely a Gov­ern­ment is­sue’’.

A con­di­tion of AFTA mem­ber­ship is that agents join the smart trav­eller cam­paign, which means pass­ing on rel­e­vant ad­vice to clients and telling them where they can get up­dates. Ad­vice is of­ten printed and at­tached to itin­er­ar­ies.

On the ques­tion of how travel in­sur­ance re­lates to gov­ern­ment warn­ings, DFAT says some com­pa­nies will not cover claims made in coun­tries where it ad­vises against travel. A spokesman for the In­sur­ance Coun­cil of Aus­tralia says, in gen­eral, can­cel­la­tions won’t be cov­ered if some­one de­cides to pull out of a hol­i­day due to a travel warn­ing up­grade. But if they are in­jured in a ter­ror­ism in­ci­dent, they would be able to claim. But rules vary be­tween com­pa­nies and he says trav­ellers should al­ways check with their in­surer.

Check­list

DFAT’s travel ad­vice is also avail­able on a recorded mes­sage, phone 1300 139 281.

www.smar­trav­eller.gov.au

Take a seat: Travel ad­vi­sories can mean empty planes, top; the Bali TV cam­paign, above

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