Musings on conflict, peace, and the ‘anxiety infection’

By Martin Craigs

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I have had the good fortune for 30+ years of living in, working in, and learning from countries around the world and have seen how global travel and tourism has an overwhelmingly positive influence on societies it serves.

Growing up in Belfast and living through the tense times of the “Troubles” in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, I saw some of the violence and reflected often on the conflicts origins. Although the few operating hotels in the North were largely full of journalists, to the south the government was investing heavily in its conventional tourism product effectively to bring in the “ Irish diaspora” particularly from the USA. Where I lived in Northern Ireland, a real leisure visitor was a very rare sight , our image was toxic to tourists.

Many years later, as CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA),Istanbul to Santiago I saw time and again how tourists deepened their understanding of societies and cultures as they delivered and retained empathy for alternative ways of thinking and acting.

In Bangkok in 2014, I again found myself in the middle of disruption — disruption of a different and far less violent nature than what I had lived through in my youth, but of a type that seemed to had a big impact in terms of keeping tourists away, and threatening the livelihood of the five million people in the “ Land of Smiles “ that depend on the complete visitor economy.

I was often asked by international broadcasters to comment on the civil disruptions on behalf of PATA’s engaged corporate members. Perhaps my upbringing had desensitised me slightly to what conflict was, but there were times when I needed to question why some reporters were wearing steel helmets at protests that looked to me more like Woodstock than a war zone.

I am of course not denying that the anti-government protests resulted in political instability, mass demonstrations and rallies, nor that there was violence. Shootings and bomb attempts did lead to deaths and injury over the course of the 18 month crisis. However, I feel that the desire to feed the 24-hour news and social media cycles of our world today and the heightened sensitivity we now feel to risk, may result in a difference of perspective between what is experienced and felt by those ‘on the ground’ and what is seen by those on the outside depending only on snapshots from time constrained visiting international media.

Conflict of any kind is difficult enough for the people who have to live through it, but when those countries in conflict rely heavily on the revenue from visitors and guests, as Thailand does, and the news coverage lacks overall balance and perspective, the result is even more unfair as the media induced ‘anxiety infection’ then spreads further through the economy and to those employed at the lower end of a stricken tourism industry.

An example of role reversal in this area I was outside Belfast’s iconic Europa hotel (blown up 27 times in 30 years and today thriving) last summer when a news alert popped up on a fatal bomb at a Buddhist Shrine in Bangkok, troubling close to where my former colleagues work.

Belfast slowly overcame adversity because of its resilient people and some persistent politicians. It has gone from zero to hero on tourism since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The Titanic Centre, launched in 2012 , which sensitively interprets a complex tragedy, attracted almost 1 million people from 100+ countries last year.

Bangkok bounced back as it has many times quickly because it’s full of cheerful pro-tourism entrepreneurs who intuitively know how to overcome adversity.

On a final note, I know that Northern Ireland still has an “unfinished peace”, but tourism is continuing to move it in the right direction. Tourism by its nature creates tangible unified civic pride. I complete this post a day after Northern Ireland went peacefully to the election polling stations. Tourism coaches pass with occupants unaware of their contribution.

First thoughts from Martin Craigs, a Northern Ireland native and long standing proponent of the values that Travel & Tourism can deliver.

Martin started his career working for airliner manufacturers (Shorts, Saab, BAE and Airbus) during his 25 years in the industry he became a founding member and now sits as Chairman of Aerospace Forum Asia see www.aerospaceforumasia.org . Today he is an advisor to Dr Taleb Rifai, Secretary General of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), and Chairman of The Iconic Golf Group, a luxury inbound golf tour operator run by his eldest son Kain. Martin was also CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) and GTAC member 2011–14.

WTTC has conducted research on the empirical evidence of a link between Tourism and Peace. To read WTTC’s research on how tourism is a driver of peace, please go to our website for the full report and the executive summary.

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