Business School researchers who have advised on previous recovery efforts in Australia and internationally discuss what we need to do now – and why the tourist industry needs to build resilience.
As residents in bushfire affected areas in Australia survey the remains of their homes and communities start to count the cost, the recovery operation is getting underway.
In the wake of the devastating bushfires which engulfed over 12.35 million acres of land, the challenge is not just to replace the burnt-out properties but also to rebuild the businesses and economy these communities rely on – tourism is a vital part of this.
According to government figures, Australia as a whole stands to lose $4.5bn in tourist revenues. There is also the danger that the graphic images of blazing forests and billowing smoke seen by audiences worldwide could permanently damage the country’s image as a prime visitor destination.
Bushfires are a familiar topic for tourism experts Gabby Walters and Judith Mair, Associate Professors at The University of Queensland (UQ) Business School who have advised on previous natural disaster recovery. However, the two women who authored Reputation and Image Recovery for the Tourism Industry, point out that there are some important differences this time around.
Firstly, the latest fires have attracted much greater media attention than in the past. Judith says: “The bushfires have put Australia on the world stage as a symbol of climate change, which has brought a political dimension to the debate.
“There has also been more attention from celebrities as the growth in social media has brought higher levels of engagement from audiences worldwide. These events touch people in a way they didn’t before.”
The good news is that the tourism industry has learned from experience and has clearly taken on board the practices which they have advocated – such as having crisis management plans in place, providing up-to-date information and positive stories to combat media sensationalism.
Gabby, who was on the Destination Gippsland board at the time of the Black Saturday fires in 2009, says tourist destinations are better equipped now.
“This time, the industry is more knowledgeable about how to respond. Operators are being a lot more proactive, and we are also seeing examples of good practice by destination managers too. The industry is doing a lot of things right.”
So what should recovery efforts focus on this time? Judith and Gabby suggest a number of priorities:
1. Achieving best practice across the industry
While areas such as Gippsland are well versed in dealing with crises, others still have room for improvement. It is particularly important that those outside the disaster zones build their knowledge.
According to some reports, up to 60 per cent of bookings in unaffected towns have been cancelled. As media coverage tends to create a ‘spillover effect’, events in one area are seen to affect the entire country and give the impression that the whole of Australia is burning. By posting pictures online, operators can prove that this is not the case.
The industry also needs to be prepared for the future. “With bushfires and other disasters becoming more frequent, building resilience is very important,” says Judith.
2. Reach out to international visitors
“Australian tourists are well aware of how to help affected towns – stay overnight, spend money, eat in a restaurant – they tend to be very generous when it comes to supporting local communities,” says Gabby.
“The main problem is likely to be the image we portray to international tourists.”
Their research in Gippsland showed that people living further away were less likely to visit after the bushfires, perhaps because they were unlikely to know the situation on the ground.
As most foreign visitors also come through Melbourne or Sydney, they may also be deterred by fears of smoke-filled streets or poor air quality during their stopover.
Australia needs to target international tourists and challenge misperceptions, these researchers believe.
One example outlined in their book was the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which triggered the meltdown of three nuclear reactors. Not surprisingly, safety fears were a major factor in the fall-off in tourism, and some foreign governments warned against travel to the country.
To counter these, the Japanese government published regular information about radiation levels and produced videos in different languages to show that life had returned to normal. It also organised briefings for travel agents in other countries and persuaded foreign governments to review their safety advice.
3. Manage celebrity endorsements
Cate Blanchett, Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman and Bette Midler are among a long list of celebrities helping to raise funds for the bushfires. But such efforts can do as much harm as good if they result in fans giving money but cancelling holidays at the same time.
Where celebrities can make a greater impact is in wooing tourists back to affected areas. Research in Gippsland after the Black Saturday fires found that celebrity endorsements were the most effective form of promotion in the recovery efforts. Former Miss Universe Jennifer Hawkins and cricketer Shane Warne set an example by visiting the Gippsland area themselves to show the region was open for business.
Judith says operators should try to channel celebrity endorsements with visits to the destination if possible and sharing positive messages and images.
“Where celebrities can share affirming stories about local communities’ resilience, and maybe even visit, it is likely to do more for recovery efforts in the long term than raising donations.”
4. Improve media skills
While sensational headlines can be very damaging during a crisis, the media can be a powerful vehicle to rebuild tourism once the recovery period begins. The authors believe that destination teams need to sharpen their PR and communication skills.
Journalists should be encouraged to be more specific about the locations affected, and destinations should try to counter any misperceptions and restore visitor confidence. Social media further complicates matters, providing a conduit for the spread of ‘fake news’, but is also another channel to reach audiences to also share real images of recovery.
Kaikoura on New Zealand’s South Island, which is heavily dependent on tourism, is one location that successfully challenged negative storylines. When the earthquake of 2016 closed the main highway, leaving the area isolated, the media showed dramatic footage of landslips and questioned whether the township could survive.
Within ten days of the earthquake, its tourism authority published the first of a series of newsletters giving accurate information but with a strong and positive message – showing operators reopening for business and photos of Kaikoura looking ‘pretty as a postcard’. Its relentless optimism won it widespread support.
Travel writers also have an important role to play by showing what a destination can offer. Beset by natural disasters and with a reputation for poverty, violence and corruption, Haiti has successfully leveraged press coverage to rebuild its image.
Travel writers were invited to form their own views and explore a ‘non-commercialised’ destination, with staggering natural beauty and a rich culture and history. A series of articles has helped position it in a more positive light as an emerging Caribbean destination.
5. Explore new opportunities
After a disaster, it is not always possible to return to normal, but crises can bring new opportunities.
Gabby says, “while disasters have a negative impact, they can also stimulate innovation and offer an opportunity to identify new markets and products. A successful recovery programme can contain the seeds of a more resilient future.”
In Kaikoura, for example, managers used the downtime to take stock of their proposition. They built a new website, launched the new Alpine Pacific Tourism Route and developed ideas for future themes. There is a sense in the area that Kaikoura has emerged stronger and in better shape.
In Japan, the authorities launched the Michinoku Coastal Trail and developed strong regional brands to boost areas affected. Two years after the earthquake, tourist numbers had already exceeded the previous figures.
Judith says that, although the bushfires may not be as bad next year, it is time for the industry to accept the growing incidence of such events.
“This is the new normal – the tourism industry and wider business community need to get to grips with it and be prepared. Destinations which have plans in place and understand what they need to do will bounce back far more quickly with better resilience.”