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In Case of Crises, Tourism Becoming a Top Priority.

Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared without a trace on March 8, 2014. Just after the two month anniversary of the event, Malaysia’s tourism industry has adopted much-needed crisis management reforms – stabilizing, and even increasing, tourism to Malaysia. How has the disappearance of flight MH370 influenced crisis management and tourism in Malaysia? How will Malaysian tourism industries respond to increased news coverage? Can they use it to boost tourism and eventually recover from the crisis? The MoniTourism Editorial Team explains some of the short and long-term effects of the Malaysia Airlines crisis.

Just after the two month anniversary of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, Malaysia’s tourism industry has adopted much-needed crisis management reforms – stabilizing, and even increasing, tourism to Malaysia.

For instance, the 2014 Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents Fair in March recorded over 90,000 visitors, a significant increase from years prior.

In particular, increased publicity due to extensive international news coverage of MH370′s disappearance has encouraged changes in crisis management in order to protect Malaysian tourism. But, how has the disappearance of flight MH370 influenced crisis management and tourism in Malaysia?

When Chinese citizens, who make up 12% of the Malaysian tourism industry themselves, were asked whether or not they would go to Malaysia after the disappearance of flight MH370 on Sinna Weibo, 77% claimed they would not 1, pointing to a fear of travel than tends to decrease tourism levels immediately following transportation crises. But, while tourism may stagnate in the short-term, experts agree that tourism levels are likely to return to normal levels - and, even, increase - after fear of travel subsides 2. However, this transformation may not be without a similar transformation in Malaysia’s crisis management standards.

Current standards for crisis management include the establishment of a media center for positive press coverage and the encouragement of domestic demand (among others) 3. But, it is the Malaysian tourism industry’s ineffectual approach to these two standards in particular that have allowed press coverage to stimulate fear of travel to Malaysia rather than interest in the country, raising the question:

Is it too late for Malaysian tourism industries to react to increased news coverage in order to boost tourism? While the global media and public first reported widespread fear and confusion in response to the disappearance of flight MH370, the government and tourism industries in Malaysia were able to manage the crisis and set some standards for managing future emergencies. For example, by delineating between commercial ownership and governmental authority for quick organization and leadership, developing communications strategies for all scenarios attached to the incident, and educating the public about the technicalities of flight to encourage sympathy for un-instantaneous results, Malaysia was able to keep the media and public engaged and informed throughout the crisis 4. These steps encouraged positive press relations and, therefore, a more positive presentation of Malaysia as a tourism destination. Although respect for the missing necessitated a decrease in advertising in the short-term, increased media coverage of the flight and its evolving crisis management has actually already begun to boost Malaysian tourism.

However, it is important to note that the Malaysian tourism industry’s ability to recover after a crisis may be unique to the crisis itself, as the waiting period for tourism may differ from incident to incident. For example, the United States did not begin to recover from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks until early 2002, as the United States mourned those lost. Contrastingly, after the SARS outbreak of 2003, tourism in China and Singapore took an entire year to reach pre-SARS levels, as pandemic fears were difficult to quell even after the disease was contained.

The period of increased fear and decreased tourism in all three states also included increased press coverage. Both the United States and China and Singapore were able to improve their tourism industries after crises by focusing on positive press. The United States presented an image of strength, encouraging tourism even after the resulting economic recession 5. China presented an image of controlled health after the initial outbreak 6, with a focus on controlling press coverage to create a positive image allowing the countries to weather the economic hit from their respective crises.

Although crises may result in decreased tourism for a short period of time, increased media exposure will stabilize tourism in the long-term. While the disappearance of flight MH370 has resulted in an immediate decrease in tourism, the country’s investment in renewed crisis management standards, positive press coverage, and advertising is still likely to grow its tourism industries in the long-term. As Malaysia’s ability to manage the crisis receives wide-spread media attention, demonstrating control, strength and positivity will be crucial to encouraging tourism as quickly as possible after the flight’s disappearance.

By continuing to focus on quick organization, public education, and communication strategy, Malaysian tourism industries may yet be able to repair any reputational damage created by the initial bad press surrounding the incident.

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