WATCH THIS PLACE
Government travel advisories are a hot topic among tourism insiders, reports Barry Oliver
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.
DFAT’s travel advice is also available on a recorded message, phone 1300 139 281.
Take a seat: Travel advisories can mean empty planes, top; the Bali TV campaign, above