Global hotspots join the race for tourists


MADRID — Rogue states better known for their repressive regimes, political unrest and weapons programmes are increasingly competing for visitors with well established tourist destinations, travel experts say.

The trend is underscored at the Fitur travel fair which got underway Wednesday in Madrid as Myanmar — which has been ruled with an iron fist by a military government since 1962 — is taking part for the first time.

Among the other global hotspots represented at the event, one of Europe’s largest and most important travel fairs, is the Palestinian territories, Libya, Zimbabwe and Iran, whose nuclear ambitions are the subject of deep suspicion in Washington and many other world capitals.

Tony Wheeler, the co-founder of the popular Lonely Planet travel guides who recently published a book on his travels to nine rogue nations he labelled “bad lands”, told AFP the trend reflects travelers’ growing desire to visit places few others have been to before.

“Lots of tourists want to be the first through the door,” said Wheeler, who has written or contributed to more than 30 Lonely Planet titles.

Rather than acting as a deterrent, for many people negative media reports about a country only serve to fuel their desire to visit so as to be able to draw their own conclusions, he added.

Andrew Swearingen, a Danish linguistics student Oxford University, said he decided to visit North Korea in 2005 out of “morbid curiosity” after former President George W. Bush said the country formed part of an “axis of evil” along with Iraq and Iran.

“North Korea must be one of the most totalitarian regimes on the planet. It is the world’s first communist dynasty. I wanted to see such a place first-hand,” the 38-year-old told AFP.

While tourist travel to North Korea is only possible as part of a guided tour, the number of foreign visitors to the country rose to around 4,500 in 2008 from just 600 in 2001, a year before Bush’s “axis of evil” speech, according to North Korean government figures.

Being in the media spotlight for the wrong reasons does make it harder to sell a nation a vacation spot, said Ross Kennedy, the president of Africa Albida Tourism which operates a string of safari lodges in strife-torn Zimbabwe.

But he said correcting misconceptions about the situation in the country and highlighting its attractions can go a long way to allaying fears and convincing foreign tourists to visit.

The group, which is taking part at Fitur for the first time this year, posted a four percent rise in visitors last year despite elections in Zimbabwe in which President Robert Mugabe was accused by human rights groups of using violence and intimidation to keep his grip on power.

“You certainly can’t write off an entire destination because of the choices or behaviour of a few individuals,” Kennedy told AFP.

Also contributing to the trend is the fact that travellers are not as put off by government warnings against visiting a country as before, said Ken Shapiro, the editor of TravelAge West, a magazine for travel agents.

“In the last few years people have become very savvy in terms of how some of these warnings have been perceived to be more political than they are necessarily, truly about safety concerns for travellers,” he told AFP.

More than 13,000 companies from 170 countries and regions are participating in the Fitur tourism tradeshow, which was attended by more than 8,000 journalists from around the world last year, according to organisers.