Accurate information key to overcoming flu outbreak challenge to tourism: PATA chief

Mario Hardy

Destination and tourism marketers will need to play a critical role in correcting the vast amount of misinformation surrounding the ongoing Novel Coronavirus outbreak that is hurting travel and tourism businesses across Asia, urged Mario Hardy, CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA).

Speaking to TTG Asia, Hardy said the spread of falsehoods about the virus was his “biggest concern”, more than the outbreak itself as the former has the ability to trigger panic and cause more people than necessary to halt travel.

Hardy: Tourism marketers ought work to stem the spread of misinformation concerning the coronavirus

“There has been a lot of messages and content being shared online and on WhatsApp, mostly insane theories that look like the truth but are not. This is very worrying because people are relying on such information to make their travel decisions. We have been through some tough incidents that impact travel and tourism, like natural disasters, but somehow the spread of misinformation surrounding this outbreak is the worst I’ve seen,” Hardy said.

He urged travel and tourism colleagues to rely only on reputable organisations for authentic information and to play a part in sharing only verified information with customers.

“Here at PATA, we go to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the John Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering for verified information and real-time updates, and we urge our colleagues to do the same,” he said.

An informed business approach is also essential, advised Hardy who pointed to data that will be released by ForwardKeys today to shed light on how the outbreak has impacted travel bookings. PATA itself will be releasing on February 4 its annual industry forecast, and projections will take the outbreak into account.

“We are planning to have a joint webinar with ForwardKeys very soon that will provide the industry with a platform to better understand the business impact of the outbreak,” he revealed.

When asked for his expectations on business outlook, Hardy said the “short-term will see a huge drop in arrival numbers due to significant cancellations while the long-term will have people adopting a wait-and-see approach”.

“The drop will be significant for Asia because many Asian destinations rely heavily on the China market. We have seen the same happening in the past, such as when there was SARS. However, we have also seen from past incidents that when the storm finally blows over, the recovery of arrivals often comes fast and heavily. We are a very resilient industry.”

Hardy opined that Asian destinations, which have experienced the SARS epidemic two decades ago, are far more prepared this round and will be able to limit the extent of damage to tourism. “Some may argue that the Chinese government was too slow in shutting down affected cities, but the fact is it has taken the bold measure to restrict movement and limit the spread of the virus. Elsewhere, Asian governments have also taken good measures to protect their citizens from infection,” he said.

In Thailand, where Hardy and the PATA headquarters are based, the private sector has joined government agencies in taking steps to ensure the well-being of the community. Citing examples, Hardy said office buildings and commercial establishments have made hand sanitisers easily accessible everywhere, and some have allocated staff in gloves to manage the elevator buttons “so that no one else has to touch the buttons”.

When asked how Asian destination and tourism marketers should adjust their communications in light of the situation, Hardy said this was not the time yet to resume selling destinations and products.

“People are still nervous, especially those who have lived through SARS. Their confidence and trust will be low for the next few months (as the outbreak continues to progress), so destination marketing messages will be lost on them. Destinations should continue what they are doing now – sharing timely information on the issue and providing assistance to the industry to allow them to reassure and protect guests,” he said.

Meanwhile, Hardy said the damage to tourism businesses from the sudden retreat of Chinese travellers provided yet another urgent reminder that destinations must not rely heavily on a single source market.

“While it is true that when the Chinese come, they come in large numbers, destinations need to diversify their source markets as well as tourism products so that they can attract a variety of travellers and minimise risks when problems happen.”

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