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Asia’s tourism campaigns could benefit from a little cleaning up

by Curtis S. Chin

It’s not the annual rainy season or the sad tale of stranded Japanese divers that has people still talking here on this land of sandy beaches, rice fields, arts and culture, and Hindu temples still referred to by some as the “Island of the Gods.”

Instead, the seasonal monsoon winds, high waves and strong currents that come every winter are now bringing wave after wave of garbage on to some of Bali’s most famous beaches, and government, residents and tourists — from Japan and elsewhere — alike are quite literally talking trash.

World-famous Kuta Beach, the long-time heart of Bali’s surfing culture, is increasingly littered with ocean-borne debris, and the Jakarta Post has now reported incidents of people getting infections after surfing off the island’s southern beaches.

A recent afternoon walk taking in some of Bali’s most famous beaches, Seminyak, Legian and Kuta, had one island visitor wading through plastic bags and wrappers, discarded yogurt containers and organic debris — not to mention the occasional soccer ball and shoe — all washed to shore, perhaps from elsewhere in Bali or from Java, the next Indonesian island to the west.

Understandably, none of this floating garbage makes it into the imagery of the country’s official travel and tourism campaign, “Wonderful Indonesia.”

Launched in January 2011, that campaign showcases the many stunning attractions of the largest archipelago nation in the world, comprising more than 17,500 islands that stretch as wide a distance as from San Francisco to New York.

And therein lies a critical challenge for not just Indonesia’s aptly named Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy, but all too many of Asia’s tourism authorities. As they seek to creatively brand destinations and capture visitors with catchy slogans — consider “Amazing Thailand,” “Malaysia: Truly Asia,” and “Incredible India!” — how to do so when unchecked economic development often threatens the long-term sustainability of the very attractions that bring in travelers, whether pristine beaches, ancient monuments or tropical rainforests.

For many Asian nations, tourism is big business and destinations — both entire nations and individual cities — are battling for their share of the lucrative traveler’s dollar. In Thailand, the “Land of Smiles,” tourism has accounted by some estimates for 7 percent of the nation’s GDP.

In 2012, The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) reportedly received $200 million from the Thai government to finance its effort. The amount was justified to increase tourism revenue from regional and international markets, and to fend off stiff competition from Vietnam, Cambodia and the new kid on the block, Myanmar (aka Burma). Myanmar, in the meantime, was working on its own campaign and asking travelers to “Join the journey.”

The final numbers are still out, and the anti-government protests are likely to have taken their toll, but the TAT projected tourism revenue to reach $39 billion in 2013, up 9 percent from 2012. International visitors were expected to make up 61 percent, or about $24 billion of revenue.

And the promotions seem to be working, with large numbers of international visitors — including growing numbers of Mainland Chinese tourists — drawn to Bangkok and other Asian cities. As measured by MasterCard’s 2013 Global Destination Cities Index, which looked at international overnight stays, travelers ranked Bangkok the No. 1 destination, followed by London, Paris, Singapore and New York.

Of 132 ranked cities, 42 are in Asian countries, underscoring a noticeable trend in the 2013 report — the growing dominance of the Asia-Pacific region. Following Bangkok and Singapore as top Asian urban destinations are Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai and Tokyo.

Accor, Hyatt and Marriott are among the many Western hospitality brands competing with Asia-based hotel players such as Okura, Peninsula, Oberoi and the Shangri-la Group. National and discount carriers are also increasingly serving intraregional travelers across Asia, making a country’s cities accessible as never before.

China has now joined France and the United States in the top three countries for international visitors.

As might be expected, the tourism campaigns showcase the best of what the region has to offer — Krabi’s beaches in Thailand, Sabah’s rain forests in Malaysia and Hong Kong dining and shopping. But the slogans, and the images of luxurious landscapes and glittering shopping malls that often accompany them are often at odds with the region’s economic realities.

As a region, Asia and the Pacific still accounts for two-thirds of the world’s poor, as some 1.7 billion people live on less than $2 a day, according to the Asian Development Bank.

In Indonesia alone, World Bank data shows that out of a population of some 235 million, more than 32 million people live below the poverty line. Approximately half of all Indonesia households remain clustered around the national poverty line set at about $22 per month.

Further, some 43 percent of the Asia-Pacific population does not have access to improved sanitation facilities. Migrants to the region’s growing cities, hoping to escape rural poverty and cash in on the “Asian Dream,” may well face a hand-to-mouth existence, in addition to inadequate education opportunities, housing and other urban infrastructure.

Much of this will be news to Asia’s tourists, with disparities in income typically less visible than trash on a beach, blackouts, water shortages, insufficient sewage systems and once-blue skies filled with smoke or smog. But as poverty in the region has decreased, inequality has often widened.

Beyond the glossy ads and striking television campaigns of Indonesia and elsewhere, the jinni of inequality in Asia has long been out of the bottle. Among Asia destinations for which data is available, the worldwide rankings in order of most unequal to least unequal distribution of family income include Hong Kong (11th), Thailand (12th), Papua New Guinea (18th), Singapore (26th), China (29th), Malaysia (33rd) and the Philippines (42nd), according to the CIA World Factbook. Over the last years, according to the ADB, economic inequality has widened in 12 of 28 Asian economies with comparable data, including the three most populous countries and the drivers of the region’s rapid growth — China, India and Indonesia.

Ethnic minorities, local communities and indigenous peoples, in particular, have too often been excluded from the benefits of the region’s dynamism that is showcased in its travel campaigns. Tourism dollars also have not done enough to help those most in need — despite policy principles, such as in Indonesia, described as pro-poor, pro-growth, pro-job and pro-environment.

Photographs of Cambodia’s Angkor temples with nary a soul in sight and carefully staged commercials showing trash-free beaches in Bali are more moments in time than false advertising. Increasingly, though, those moments are rarer and rarer.

As Asia welcomes more and more visitors, its leaders and policymakers must take steps toward a more sustainable tourism industry and supporting infrastructure. More environmentally friendly economic development is also essential if the investments they hope to attract and the economic growth that tourism dollars are supposed to fuel are to be realized.

A first step in Indonesia could included new waste management systems and strengthened efforts to clean up Bali’s beaches. Doing so will ensure the Island of the Gods remains a hot spot for tourism, not trash, for seasons on end.

Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter: @CurtisSChin.