Rebuilding tourism in the wake of disaster

Natural disasters can have a devastating effect on tourism. However Australia’s experience with flooding and bushfires has provided some valuable lessons on how destinations can recover after a crisis.

Few will forget the dramatic images of the Black Saturday bushfires. Footage of the infernos left a lasting impression on millions of viewers around the world – so much so that a full two years after the disaster, a survey found that many outside of Victoria still regarded the state as a no-go zone.

Like the Queensland floods and the Christchurch earthquake, the 2009 bushfires illustrate the longer-term effects that disasters can have on tourist destinations. Once the immediate clear-up operation has ended, there is the task of repairing the damage to the destination’s image and encouraging visitors to return.

Dr Gabby Walters, a tourism lecturer at UQ Business School, was on the board of Destination Gippsland at the time of the Black Saturday bushfires. Her experience and her subsequent research have given her an insight into the problems that destinations face in the wake of disaster and how best to help them recover.

“When disaster hits, the media sensationalise what is happening which draws people’s attention to a destination for all the wrong reasons,” says Dr Walters.

“The impact appears bigger than it is. The media also regionalise events so that the Blue Mountains bushfires become the New South Wales bushfires.

“As people from outside don’t know the geography, they become confused over the extent of the disaster and the areas affected. With the bushfires, only 5-6% of Victoria was affected but the Australians we interviewed believed it to be 90-95% and considered the whole state a no-go zone. Overseas, the fires became known as the Australian bushfires – implicating the entire country!”

The same thing can happen in cases of terrorism, war or political turmoil. One country affected is Jordan, where Dr Walters recently spoke at a conference to help develop its tourism industry.

Despite being a peaceful country with much to offer tourists, ranging from beaches and deserts to the ancient city of Petra, Jordan’s location between Israel, the Palestinian territories and Iraq means that its tourist trade frequently suffers as a result of troubles in neighbouring states.

Whatever the cause of the crisis, Dr Walters’ research, which was carried out with her colleagues Dr Judith Mair and Associate Professor Brent Ritchie, has shown that there are a number of common steps which destinations can take to limit the damage and project a more positive image:

1. Manage the media

Help journalists to understand the damage that sensationalist reporting can cause. Work with them to achieve balanced coverage. Encourage them to be specific about the location of trouble spots to isolate the areas affected, and to cover some stories about positive outcomes as opposed to continually reporting on tragedy and loss. Try to get them involved in some way, for example by giving them a formal role on the tourist board. Educate stakeholders on how to communicate with the media.

2. Make use of social media

Use it as a market research tool to assess public opinion and identify emerging trends, and to promote your destination in a positive light. Counter damaging stories in the media with images which directly contradict them – such as tourists relaxing and having fun or hotels and attractions operating as normal in unaffected areas. Encourage tourists to post their own photographs on social media and share them with friends.

3. Provide factual information

Give out up-to-date information about safety and the status of attractions, accommodation, restaurants and other facilities. Ensure tourists are aware of areas which are not affected so they have alternative destinations within the same area if they need to re-evaluate their travel plans. Providing access to factual and reliable information helps to combat media sensationalism and ensures visitors can make an informed choice.

4. Differentiate your destination

In times of crisis, a destination’s competitiveness becomes even more important. This is the time to focus on what makes you unique rather than luxury hotels or other facilities that tourists can find elsewhere.

5. Don’t discount

Research has shown that tourists are not tempted to visit a crisis-hit area solely because of price cuts. Discounting can devalue a destination in the eyes of visitors and once you have cut prices, it’s hard to push them up again. It also attracts a fickle audience – consumers who buy on price have no long-term loyalty.

6. Beware of being ‘open for business’ too soon

Announcements of this type should only be made once the whole area is ready and willing to receive visitors. Marketing a destination prior to its full recovery can generate distrust. In the meantime, marketing efforts should be carried out via individual operators within unaffected areas targeting their existing client base directly. In any case, previous visitors are the ones who are most likely to return following a disaster.

7.  Be prepared

No one likes to acknowledge the risk of disaster but it’s worthwhile having a crisis plan in place. This would include helping individual operators to plan for a crisis by considering cancellation policies, evacuation procedures and how the business would survive with no tourist income; preparing marketing messages to roll out following a disaster; and agreeing spokespersons and an effective media management strategy.

8. Learn from the past

Look at what measures have been successful in helping other areas to recover. Celebrity endorsements proved highly effective following the bushfires and research suggests that festivals and other events are most valuable in the 12 months to two years following a crisis.

Dr Walters adds: “In recent years there has been a significant increase in the number and intensity of natural disasters. We have seen the Black Saturday bushfires, the earthquakes in Christchurch and Japan, the floods in Queensland and New Orleans, and the Thai tsunami to name but a few. With events like these becoming more prevalent, we are likely to see more destinations affected. We need to learn lessons from the past to help such locations to restore their tourist trade and rebuild their economy.”

Last updated:
27 February 2019