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After political turmoil: the lessons of rebuilding tourism in three Asian countries.

Tourism planners need to take greater heed of the political context within which tourism development occurs and to establish policies which negate the likelihood of destinations being the subject of political violence.

- Hall (1994, p. 107)

Tourism is the largest industry in the world with visitor arrivals topping 594 million in 1996 and foreign exchange earnings soaring (Frangialli 1997). However, it is also one of the most vulnerable sectors. It is fragile precisely because what it sells is fun, serenity, relaxation, beautiful scenery, luxury, interesting cultures, and/or adventure. However, even adventure tourism does not include being kidnapped, being caught in crossfire, or the prospect of being blown up! Thus, to Malcolm Crick's four "S' s" of tourism (sun, sand, sea, and sex), one needs to add the most important "S": security (Crick 1989). Some business travelers may warily proceed to politically volatile nations, but tourists have scores of other options competing for their attention and money (Richter 1992).

Unfortunately, policy makers and tourism entrepreneurs do not have an impressive arsenal of weapons with which to defend tourism in the face of instability. Price, for example, quickly loses saliency in the face of major upheavals. What can be done to rebuild tourism depends on a careful analysis of the source of the turmoil and the role, if any, that tourism may have played. Clearly, rebuilding tourism requires more than repairs and promotion. A one-size-fits-all mentality will not do. Just as the sources of instability and their manifestations will differ, so too will the appropriate responses.

Also, it is rare that political problems suddenly emerge and then later abruptly end. Often there are years of chronic political violence - if not nationally, then regionally - that should require very cautious tourism development that is both more tentative and small-scale than that appropriate to a destination enjoying long-term stability. Too often, the response to a lull in the fighting is to market aggressively the sites and attractions without exploring the adaptations and constraints that are relevant. For example, Cambodia sought to jump-start its economy with tourism before removing land mines in areas, of tourist interest! Other nations market areas of their countries that are still unsafe instead of concentrating their emphasis on more secure regions. These actions have led tourist-generating governments to monitor security in popular destinations. Japan and the United States have been particularly assertive in issuing warnings and in some cases forbidding travel to dangerous destinations. In the case of the United States, the severity of the warning has often hinged more on relations between the United States and the destination; for example, Mexican security issues are downplayed while Iranian 'threats are stressed.

This article draws on three Asian case studies to highlight decisions and events that crippled tourism and complicated the straggle to recover. All three nations, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, have major cultural attractions; beautiful beaches and mountains; and a citizenry of great cultural, ethnic, and religious variety. That they have had great difficulty in capitalizing on those strengths reflects both bad luck and poor planning. By concentrating on understanding what went wrong and how such problems may be avoided, it is hoped that others will enhance their good luck or at least have contingencies in place that will allow them to recover quickly from political disasters.


The Philippines has never lacked tourism potential, only tourists. By the early 1970s, a thoughtful plan was developed for modest growth based on the economic projections of the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA). That course was abandoned in 1972 when President Marcos declared martial law. Typically, a declaration of martial law could be expected to depress tourist arrivals. However, this martial law was a cosmetic attempt to perpetuate the president's rule past the end of his last term. However, the announced rationale was that the country faced internal instability requiring the president to dissolve Congress, to rule by decree, to close most newspapers, to establish a curfew, and to confiscate the holdings of opponents. At the same time he created a cabinet-level Department of Tourism and began ambitious efforts to woo tourists and conventions and build mammoth five-star hotels - all with total disregard for the national tourism plan and its orderly development.

The political uses of the various stages of Philippine tourism development have been detailed elsewhere (Richter 1982, 1989), but what happened was not unique to the Philippines. Many governments including Franco's Spain have used tourism for primarily political leverage. Tourism can help garner aid and political legitimacy, stifle domestic criticism, and selectively reward supporters while enhancing the power of the leadership. These advantages were critical at a time when the United States had major overseas bases there.

Tourism soared for nearly 6 years under the lavish attention and incentives of the president, but its close identification with the increasingly corrupt and unpopular president made it a target of regime opposition. Marcos and his associates owned most of the major hotels bought with 100% financing guaranteed by the nation's pension system! Financing, labor laws, and environmental issues were largely ignored in the effort to create through tourism development a veneer of modernization that would impress other nations and encourage investment in the Philippines. Normal channels of opposition to the president were foreclosed so dissidents were forced to join underground movements or carry out acts of terrorism to get international attention to their plight.

Tourists were targeted as a way of destroying a major prop to the Marcos regime and eroding investor confidence in the dictator. Moreover, relatively few Filipinos could enjoy the hotels and convention facilities, so there was little backlash when the Light-a-Fire Movement began burning down the luxury hotels. In the southern Philippines, Japanese tourists were kidnapped, prompting the government of Japan, the largest source of tourists, to recommend against visiting the Philippines. The hotels emptied. In an effort to portray the acts of violence as mere media hype, Marcos hosted the American Society of Travel Agents World Congress in 1980. After his welcoming speech to the convention in which he noted how peaceful the Philippines was, a powerful bomb went off near him and the conference was subsequently canceled (Bredemeier 1980). Philippine tourism development was in retreat after that until Marcos was forced into exile in 1986 (Richter 1989).

Tourism had also become internally controversial because of the indiscriminate marketing of the nation, which resulted in such promises as "A tanned peach on every beach." Sex tourism and with it pedophilia tours soared thanks to the encouragement of the minister of tourism, Jose Aspiras, who personally owned a string of notorious motels (Richter 1989). The Catholic Church, the Ecumenical Coalition on Third World Tourism, and a host of other groups became increasingly vocal about the more sordid forms of tourism (Hall 1992).

Tourism plummeted, the overbuilt hotel industry crumbled, and the government was forced to repossess the lavish hotels. Capital flight accelerated after guerrilla violence and military assassinations ensued. Still, Marcos hung on until his cheating in the 1986 elections led to a popular uprising in Manila. After he went into exile in the United States, his successor, Corazon Aquino, took many new initiatives to rebuild tourism, but most were designed to correct the excesses of the Marcos years, to establish routine planning, and to assure that proper accounts were kept.

Aquino also used tourism to highlight the excesses of the previous regime. Sites associated with Marcos's abuse of power or of demonstrations against him became part of a "Freedom Tour." The government immediately stopped its own suggestive and sexy advertising in an effort to "desleaze" the tourist sector. The Manila mayor was particularly active in a general cleanup campaign that included both trash and red-light establishments. The government also announced that pedophiles would be prosecuted and the nations that sent such citizens were warned about the consequences.

Efforts to liquidate the government's holdings in repossessed hotels met little success until tourism revived. That took time because although tourism was not controversial under Aquino, many on the political Right were unhappy with her overtures to Muslim groups and the New People's Army. Thus, factions of the military periodically attempted coups. Most were put down easily, but they created an aura of uncertainty that kept tourists and investors cautious. Two coup attempts were serious enough to disrupt Philippine tourism. This pattern of growth and setbacks is unfortunately typical of tourism comebacks in politically unstable settings.

Aquino's successor, Fidel Ramos, himself a military leader, had greater credibility with the Right, although he had been a part of Aquino's administration. There were no coup attempts during his 6 years in office. Indeed, things have gone so well that there were efforts by some to amend the constitution to allow presidents to seek reelection. It did not succeed, but tourism and other sectors have benefited tremendously. It has been particularly encouraging to see that tourism development has been wisely integrated with other development projects targeted at improving transportation and other infrastructure that enhances the general well-being even as it facilitates tourism and encourages investment (Richter 1995).

Government planners, leaders, and tourism investors can learn a lot about what to do and not to do from studying Philippine tourism since 1972. Marcos sagely recognized that tourism could be a tool of political development as well as economic development, but he compromised both when he supported overbuilding, questionable financing, and aborted labor and environmental laws. He abandoned the government's own tourism plan for patronage opportunities for cronies. At every turn, tourism's growth was linked to the president. As he became more unpopular, tourism became an obvious target for dissidents.

The Aquino and Ramos administrations did not inherit a clean slate but each has made tourism more supportive of the overall development of the country. In a time of AIDS they were particularly eager to reduce sex tourism, especially pedophilia groups. Working with tourist-generating nations there have been marked improvements on this front.

One trouble spot has been the increasing number of kidnappings. For years Manila's wealthy Chinese residents have been the targets. Their response was largely to pay ransoms rather than rely on the ineffectual police. This has emboldened others to kidnap ordinary individuals. While there have been few fatalities associated with these largely nonpolitical kidnappings, the government has yet to develop a successful policy that will reassure residents and visitors. Should political dissidents resume terrorism in the Philippines, kidnappings are a proven resource for financing their activities (Waugh 1990). Thus, it is important that the government enhance the effectiveness of its police. It has purged some of the worst from the ranks during the past few years. However, while the force may be more honest, it has not become noticeably more adept at catching kidnappers.

There is no assurance that political unrest will not return to the Philippines, but if it does, the extent of the government's exposure in the tourism sector will be much reduced. Moreover, tourism is now seen as a legitimate industry, not a handmaiden of a corrupt dictator. As such it is unlikely to be a primary target of an organized opposition.


Sri Lanka began a major effort to develop tourism shortly before the massive buildup in the Philippines, but its political problems in sustaining tourism are in no way similar. This largely Buddhist island nation of 18 million developed tourism "by the book." It inventoried its considerable cultural and scenic attractions, developed a plan for primarily luxury tourism, set up a hospitality and hotel training center for indigenous staffing, and in general followed the advice of tourism consultants. What it did vis-a-vis luxury tourism development was reasonable yet it proved unsustainable.

For a decade, the plan worked. Tourism increased more than 21% annually from 1970 to 1980 to become the fifth leading source of foreign exchange before it crashed (Richter 1989). It failed to sustain its growth not because it had become a target of political opposition as in the Philippines but because those developing tourism in both the public and private sectors ignored the political realities in Sri Lanka. Tourism became a political casualty of the civil war between the Tamils who had predominantly Hindu Indian roots and the Sinhalese Buddhist majority that had embarked on a series of policies designed to enhance their dominant position.

The failure to anticipate the strife that followed cost the tourism industry dearly. Ironically, tourism planners who sought to control the rampant growth by modest measures in the Six Year Tourism Plan (1978-1984) were ridiculed by industry experts for their timidity (Asia Travel Trade 1977). The same experts were also complaining about changes that reduced the tax abatements for the hotels (Richter 1989). The overbuilding crisis would have been far worse if the experts would have had their way. As it was, Sri Lanka's tourism sector was already in grave danger.

For more than 13 years civil war has cost Sri Lanka more than one-third of its national budget, thousands of lives, and most of its tourists (Palmer 1992-1995; Dushkin 1997). Although few tourists have been hurt by the sporadic violence, few have been seduced by the promotional message: "Sri Lanka, the Land of the Smiling People" (Asia Yearbook 1987).

With hindsight, what could Sri Lanka have done differently? What should it do now? Any country would do well to develop a political audit that is taken every bit as seriously as its technical tourism plan. It can have regional variations that take into account ownership patterns, cultural mores, and political stability. To a lesser extent, such political audits are encouraged even in the development of tourism in developed countries. At: a national level it can include domestic factors that may affect political continuity of policies, stability, or interest groups' behavior. For example, in some nations labor unrest may dictate different kinds of development. Certainly employment patterns by gender, race, and ethnicity are relevant to forecasting domestic tourism, employment skills for the sector, and areas of tension. International threats to tourism prospects also need to be anticipated.

Specifically, such an audit might have alerted tourism planners and investors that anti-Tamil policies could contribute to the radicalization and violence of the Tamil minority. Even at the height of tourism success, Tamil entrepreneurs in the north were unable to get power or water for their guests. Ironically, Tamils lost little from the decline of tourism because they had no stake in the prewar prosperity associated with it (Richter 1989).

Another problem was the emphasis on luxury tourism. Such facilities built with long-term tax abatements could not be easily transformed for other uses when the tourists disappeared (Samarasinghe 1984). More modest facilities could have catered to more domestic tourists as well as international visitors. If both those groups disappeared, the facilities could have been converted to schools, clinics, and homes. Instead, on the recommendations of "experts," Sri Lanka had developed an industry that resembled the colonial plantation economy it had once deplored (Goonatilake 1978).

Sri Lanka created still more dependency when the political situation soured. Desperate to get tourists, it was in a poor negotiating position vis-a-vis European charters. Foreign exchange leakage, already high, grew worse. So did some social problems. Pedophiles became a big problem in some areas like Hikkaduwa. Prostitution flourished as the civil war intensified (Thiruchandran n.d.).

During the many cease-fires and lulls in the fighting, tourist rates have rebounded, but until there is a sustained peace it is hard to put in place the tourism initiatives that will give all groups in Sri Lanka a stake in its tourist industry.

Sri Lankan tourism development grew in isolation from the political environment that was required to nourish it. Not clearly considered was who won and who lost from its development, what alternative types of development might have distributed wealth more equitably, or how tourism could have been a contributor to political stability rather than the first casualty of unrest.


Tourism in Pakistan is always discussed in terms of its potential. Actual tourism statistics have been disappointing. The reasons are primarily political. Although the country has no shortage of cultural attractions or magnificent scenery, it has never known in its 50 years of independence sustained internal order or external peace with its neighbors.

Geopolitical barriers to tourism development have been enormous. Pakistan initially sought to use domestic tourism as a way of integrating the eastern and western parts of the nation, fashioned at the 1947 partition along religious lines from the British-controlled India. The idea was a good one. Pakistan was left with two Muslim-majority areas separated by more than 1,000 miles of Indian territory. Unfortunately, political skirmishes with India and the erratic leadership of military and civilian leaders never allowed for successful implementation (W. Richter 1978). In 1971, a civil war broke out between the western and eastern wings, resulting eventually in East Pakistan (with India's help) becoming the independent nation of Bangladesh.

Pakistan has had chronic problems with its neighbors, China, Afghanistan, and especially with India. In the case of the latter, there have been several wars. Thus, even when Pakistan domestic conditions were peaceful - a rare condition in itself - friction with border nations or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan have given the region a negative image. For much of the nation's independent history, travel overland to Pakistan from the West was tricky because of political conflicts in the region (Richter and Waugh 1991).

Even under the best of conditions Pakistan is far from major tourist-generating markets. Whenever conditions improve between India and Pakistan, significant numbers of Indian tourists - outnumbering all other international tourists in most years - travel to Pakistan to visit relatives and Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh holy places. Still, those numbers do not satisfy tourism planners, who like those in tourism offices everywhere, tend to become obsessed with attracting the most lucrative tourists instead of looking at the net benefits of hosting closer and more culturally congenial travelers.

India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are so enormous that despite their Third World status, each has tens of millions of affluent travelers plus many others who make sacrifices to go on religious pilgrimages. Attracting these groups contributes to larger political goals by reducing tensions between these nations. At the same time it assures a tourism market that is less seasonal and dependent on global conditions.

Pakistan has also sought to lure petro dollars from the Middle East by marketing itself as a Muslim tourism mecca. That has led to modest foreign aid and some tourism, particularly for hunting and falconry. Such sports have taken a depressing toll on Pakistan's endangered wildlife.

For several years, Pakistan's gateway city, Karachi, through which more than half of all tourists arrive, has been in the throes of intense street fighting. Nearly 2,000 lives a year have been lost to the sectarian battles. Thus, although the violence is largely contained in Karachi, the problem there is so serious and erratic that it serves to further depress travel to Pakistan.

Without sustained peace either in domestic or foreign relations, the tourism debate has been at once unrealistic and savagely competitive. Often those in tourism have sought side deals with politicians and have ignored or sabotaged their business associations, presumably because the tourism pie is seen as too small to share. That thinking has to change if the pie is to get bigger.

Tourism plans and investments also need to consider the type of tourism compatible and therefore sustainable in a country like Pakistan. Z. A. Bhutto sought to use tourism as a modernizing force and an area of future female employment. But in this and other matters he proved to be out of step with the conservative forces sweeping his and other nations. His hanging, following a coup by General Zia led to a much more conservative era. Although the nation has moderated its militant Islamic stands, groups of Pakistanis now joining the very reactionary Afghan Taliban may well bring another wave of social conservatism back to Pakistan. This is where risk analysis or a political audit can be quite useful in considering not only international and national politics but also the level of consensus that prevails on tourism issues. For example, the role of women as tourists, producers, and entrepreneurs needs to be carefully considered to avert a backlash and tragedy.


In the proceeding pages, the nature and causes of political turmoil in three nations have been briefly highlighted. Space has not permitted a detailed discussion of these problems and the effort to recover from them. Some of the suggestions, like risk analysis or a political audit, considering the level of consensus and type of tourism appropriate, may seem obvious. But these three major nations paid dearly for ignoring just such commonsense approaches. Travel consultants may have excellent specific advice on reaching a particular market, developing a land use proposal, or negotiating a management contract with a multinational hotel chain. However, all that is wasted if the tourism sector is not considered in the context of the entire economy and existing geopolitical situation. All the attractions in the world cannot: bring tourists to Lebanon, Iran, or even Dubrovnik without political peace.

To recap: the first step in tourism recovery is to understand the issues crippling tourism in the first place. Was tourism a target of the unrest because it was controversial in its development? Or was tourism a casualty of more general unrest or a failure to include minority groups in the economic and political future of the nation? Is the nation in a politically unstable region that makes tourism development unusually risky?

In all three countries, emphasis on luxury tourism development raised the stakes of success by making it more likely that foreign exchange leakage would be high, ownership or control would be exercised from abroad, and the clientele would be international visitors.

Political turmoil was most likely to depress just this type of foreign-dependent tourism and at maximum cost to the government, investors, and employees. Conversion of luxury facilities to other uses is difficult. This leaves the government and investors dependent on charters of the least profitable and more socially problematic tourists if it has any at all.

Finally, tourism can be a quite successful showcase of political leadership in many countries and in conjunction with world fairs and Olympics as the Sarajevo Winter Olympics demonstrated. However, political leaders who have not taken precautions in their development to assure that public support is maintained and risk minimized may jeopardize the industry and the nation.

One should not conclude that tourism will only thrive in well-developed, stable societies. Tourism planned carefully and with cautious phased steps can be a part of a nation's recovery. That requires patience, power sharing, consensus building efforts - all steps essential to the nation's overall prospects.


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Richter, Linda K., and William L. Waugh (1991). "Tourism and Terrorism as Logical Companions." In Tourism Management, edited by S. Medvik. Oxford, UK: Butterworth, pp. 318-27.

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Thiruchandran, Selvy (n.d.). "Tourism at What Cost?" Voice of Women, 2 (2): 16.

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Linda K. Richter is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University in Manhattan.
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Title Annotation:Special Issue on War, Terrorism, Tourism: Times of Crisis and Recovery
Author:Richter, Linda K.
Publication:Journal of Travel Research
Date:Aug 1, 1999
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