A wide berth, but how long until we return?

As Queensland and New Zealand urge travellers to return, tourism bosses and experts reveal what a recovery will really take in disaster-hit regions.

MUCH is said about the resilience of Australian travellers and their willingness to return to troubled destinations but could 2011 test that refrain?

With images of devastation and political turmoil filling our television screens week after week, could we find the limit of our devil-may-care reputation?

Tourism Queensland has launched millions of dollars' worth of marketing aimed at bringing tourists back after the floods and cyclone that dominated the news in January and last month.

And New Zealand tourism bosses are urging us to keep coming after the Christchurch earthquake.

Are we ready to go and holiday in these places? Are we willing to make the distinction between disaster zones and surrounding, unaffected areas?

And is there a compounding effect from so much bad news, especially now as we take in the terrible events in Japan?

A social-trends analyst at The Korn Group, Neer Korn, says negative images always resonate far more than positive ones, which creates a challenge for destinations that have been associated with scenes of devastation.

"Where there's a sense of ruin and it's very fresh, you need to give it time," he says.


However, Korn believes Australian travellers have short memories and will still be reasonably quick to return - as long as the troubles are seen to be over.

The head of marketing at Harvey World Travel, James Brodie, says the New Zealand skiing season will be the litmus test of whether travellers have been "fatigued" by so many adverse events.

The industry has entered its peak booking season for New Zealand skiing holidays and should soon find out whether the Christchurch earthquake and other events have put people off.

Brodie says a destination will always lose a percentage of travellers after a disaster but with past events, most visitors have proved undeterred.

The chief executive of Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism, Tim Hunter, is realistic about the tourism recovery for the region after the earthquake destroyed parts of the city last month.

While keen to spread the word that only the city itself - about 1 per cent of the South Island in geographical terms - was affected by the quake, Hunter acknowledges that many travellers fail to make that distinction.

It took four months for visitor numbers from Australia to return to normal after the September earthquake in Christchurch and the February quake was a "much bigger event" in terms of damage.

"The images on the television were quite frightening ," Hunter says. "I think it will be at least six months ... until even the people who live here start to feel more comfortable with it [being in a seismic zone].

"Our major [tourism] operators are telling us the reputation of New Zealand is tarnished ... people don't want to go somewhere where there's a lot of seismic activity."

Hunter says that although Christchurch Airport remains open as a gateway for the rest of the South Island, the tourism impact is being felt widely.

"I think the whole of the South Island feels it ... all of them are saying their numbers are down," he says. Closer to home, a study by research company TNS found one in four Australians cancelled or postponed a holiday to Queensland as a result of recent floods.

Unaffected areas such as the Gold and Sunshine coasts were impacted by "being incorrectly associated with the flooding", the study found.

Neer Korn believes advertising campaigns aimed at getting tourists to come back can work but warns that destinations have to be honest with travellers about the situation on the ground.

"If you use images that don't take the changes [from the disaster] into account, people can see right through that," he says.

"It's hard to overcome negative perceptions, that's why any advertising has to have a truth to it. People hate having the wool pulled over their eyes."

Korn believes calling on nationalistic spirit, such as asking people to support Queensland tourism operators, is likely to have limited effect; discounted holidays are more effective.

"People expect there to be bargains and that's what will get people to come back to these places," he says.

Harvey World Travel's James Brodie agrees, saying that while the industry needs to be educating the public about which areas have and haven't suffered the impact of disaster, discounts will do the most talking.

"When prices come down, that's the biggest way of overcoming apprehensions," he says.

Bouncing back

Egypt is well and truly back in business for tourists after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak as president, according to major operator Cox & Kings.

The chief executive of the company in Australia, Steve Reynolds, says most travellers due to depart before March 15 opted for a refund but there has not been a single cancellation from mid-March onwards.

Reynolds says the difference between political unrest and a natural disaster is that the former rarely involves destruction of major infrastructure.

"You look at somewhere like Japan and you think, 'How on earth are they going to clean that up?"' he says.


- Sun-Herald