Silver linings in the Asian cloud

Wanderlust editor Don George reports that at their annual conference, Pacific-Asia region travel executives searched irrepressibly -- and successfully -- for silver linings in the Asian economic cloud.

Topics: Philippines, Travel,

What with all the bad news that has dominated the Asia-Pacific region for the past year — plummeting currencies, tottering economies, forest conflagrations — you would have thought that the 1,000-plus travel industry executives gathered in Manila two weeks ago for the Pacific Asia Travel Association conference would have been, well, a tad depressed.

But no, the atmosphere was irrepressibly upbeat at the annual gathering, where executives from government tourism organizations, airlines, hotel chains, tour packagers and travel agencies listen to experts, debate issues and, most importantly, schmooze with each other.

The conference’s direction was signaled by its theme — “Inspiring Progress: Influencing Prosperity” — and articulated by speaker after speaker, beginning with outgoing PATA Chairman Jon Hutchison, who said in his opening address: “When I look at what is happening in the region and reflect on my 30-odd years in the travel industry, I start getting a bit of a buzz. It must be the businessman in me and the fact that in spite of what economics I was taught at university, I have learned that the first law of economics is this: ‘After every boom there is a bust, and after every bust there is a boom!’” (If only he’d been around in 1929!)

“You see,” Hutchison continued, “I know that there are going to be winners out of this crisis. Those countries which have had their currency devalued are potentially the biggest winners. We live in a value-conscious world. Tourists or the potential tourist just need to know that the product hasn’t changed at all. It has only become more affordable.”

A cynical outsider might dismiss this as wishful thinking or willful sophistry, but after a few days of hearing this message reiterated in different ways and contexts, I realized that it made perfect sense: These delegates didn’t need to hear about currency devaluations, economic scandals and near-collapses and uncontrollably raging, sky-choking fires. They knew all about those. What they wanted to hear about was the pathway out, the next step — the silver lining in the Asian cloud.

That lining was best limned by Adi Ignatius, the deputy editor of the Asian edition of Time magazine, who in a speech surveying the state of the region highlighted his own seven reasons for optimism:

1. There really are travel bargains to be found throughout Asia right now, and savvy travelers — from within Asia and from outside the region — will begin to take advantage of them.

2. Nine months into the economic meltdown, things are looking better just about everywhere — with the exception of Indonesia.

3 The new Chinese Prime Minister, Zhu Rongji, is good news; he understands the economy and is willing to take risks, and he is both tough and transparent — a combination previous Chinese leaders have lacked.

4. The economic shake-out and resulting bankruptcies and unemployment were necessary and inevitable. A new “Asian miracle” will follow in their wake, within the next two years.

5. Democracy is growing throughout Asia — reform and democratic leaders are enjoying unprecedented popular support around the region; the economic crisis has been a catalyst to push reforms.

6. The Philippines is “the IMF poster boy” — a heartening symbol that proves that once-troubled Asian economies can recover.

7. New ideas and a new vocabulary are taking center stage throughout Asia; in particular, “transparency” — openness rather than secrecy in pronouncement and action — is finally being seen as a critically important commodity in leaders and in institutions.

Ignatius’ remarks were delivered as part of a panel discussion on “Finding Success During Difficult Times.” Other panels charged ahead under equally optimistic banners — “Turning Problems into Opportunities,” “Positioning for Prosperity,” “Partnering for Profit” and “Sustainable Tourism Solutions.”

The consensus that emerged from these and from countless escalator encounters and cocktail conversations was clear: “We’ve reached the bottom, or just about. Things are going to get better and better from now on.” And the prevailing strategic assessment seemed to be captured in what one Hong Kong tourism official said to me: “We see this as a brief respite, a time for us to catch our breath, to reevaluate where we’ve been and where we want to go, reassess our operations and goals — before the next boom hits us.”

To understand all this accurately, of course, you have to know something about PATA itself. Founded in 1951, the organization today is the largest tourism body in the world, with more than 2,200 organizational members. PATA’s charter mission is “to contribute to the growth, value and quality of travel and tourism to and within the Pacific Asia area on behalf of its diverse membership.” Given the extraordinary range of this membership, from mom-and-pop out-island tour operators to multi-continental luxury hotel chains, PATA’s seas have always been more tumultuous than tranquil — but through the decades the association has acted to help coordinate tourism marketing and development, to promote environmentally responsible travel and to gather and share information and ideas.

The annual PATA conference, held in a different member location every year, is the grand showcase for all these efforts — and a hustling, bustling back room-cum-bazaar where members can sit down face to face, roll up their sleeves, huddle over notepads and calculators and make the deals that will generate waves of slick brochures and press releases and alter the shape of the industry in the year to come.

In other words, depression and despair just aren’t on the PATA agenda. In fact, the entrepreneurial, tourism-grounded energy, vitality and optimism — the sense of developmental destiny — manifest in this meeting have astounded me every year since my first conference in 1987. Though a new austerity was evident this year — gone were the lavish government-sponsored feasts complete with flown-in dance troupes, actors and orchestras that enlivened every night a decade ago — the buoyant camaraderie that has always distinguished the conference was still abundantly present. On opening day, the gleaming lobby of the Westin Philippine Plaza Hotel, the conference headquarters, was a constant parade of hugging, back-slapping delegates who view this as a once-a-year homecoming to their extended Asia-Pacific family.

Amid the speeches and panels, the stand-up buffets and sit-down award ceremonies, some important news and ideas did emerge: a new initiative to counteract child prostitution in Asia; the unveiling of a dynamic, $13 million advertising campaign by the Hong Kong Tourist Association, designed to revive the former colony’s flagging tourism scene; Australia’s ambitious and innovative plans to promote tourism for the upcoming Sydney Olympics and beyond, including the creation of a new Aboriginal tourism minister; strategies for harnessing and utilizing the Internet for travel promotion and commerce. The biggest news for delegates was the announcement that PATA would be moving its world headquarters later this year from San Francisco to Bangkok. For PATA members, this decision resolved an issue that had fractured the group for years, and powerfully symbolized the association’s determination to respond to the times by forging closer ties with its Asian constituencies.

But the most impressive lessons for me were the ones that crept into my consciousness, that I absorbed unaware, almost by osmosis. One of these was the incredible resiliency of the Asia-Pacific economies — a resiliency based on the passionate dreams of innumerable large- and small-scale entrepreneurs just like the delegates all around me. Another was the fundamental humanity — the person-to-person warmth and connection — that still undergirds and glues the travel industry around the world, and that distinguishes this industry from virtually all others. A third lesson was the extraordinary crossover you can still find in this part of the world, where Asians who have studied or worked abroad and smoothly adapted Western dress and manners mingle with Western expats who hopscotch from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore to Hong Kong but are always more comfortable in Asia than wherever they came from; I find something endlessly fascinating and sanguine in these international people, who have transcended birthplace and birth culture to create a small societal slice of their own.

The most moving lesson of all, however, came to me one night in the Manila Hotel when I stood adrift in a vast ballroom filled with people from San Franciscans to Sri Lankans — a jostling and joyous sea of saris and barongs, aloha shirts and batik skirts, kimonos and seersucker suits. Asia — vibrant, irreplaceable — surrounded me; I could see it, hear it, smell it. And I realized once again just how hugely diverse the Asia-Pacific region is — and how sadly misleading and just plain ignorant we are in the West when we use phrases like the Asian contagion or the Asian flu to encompass such a wildly eclectic collection of countries, cultures and economies.

Sometimes you have to experience this diversity firsthand to really understand: Japan is different from Singapore, which is different from Indonesia, which is different from Malaysia and the Philippines, which are different from Tonga and Palau and Fiji. As all the countries of this region navigate their individual paths of peril and prosperity in the months and years to come, I will try to recall that intricate, embracing sea in the Manila Hotel.

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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