Tourism’s bushfire challenges

Findings from Bushfire Preparedness and Tourism Seminar November 2013

Tourism faces increasing threat of bushfires and subsequent visitor economy impacts for communities.

 

While the impacts of climate change will continue to contribute extreme weather events, tourism is struggling to prepare itself and adapt to the challenges which lie ahead. This was a conclusion from the first dedicated tourism industry and bushfire meeting held in Sydney last week. The speakers’ presentations revealed a gap between the available information/advice verses the actual uptake and practical action taken by tourism to prepare for bushfires. This is a situation which could worsen as the pace of climate change accelerates delivering increased and prolonged extreme weather conditions.

“Tourism must develop a far higher level of bushfire preparedness and product resilience if the visitor economy is to continue to be a strong contributor to rural communities” says Christopher Warren, director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism-Australia (ICRT).

Warren was amongst seven expert speakers at the ‘Bushfire Preparedness for the Tourism Industry: Managing Visitor Economy Risks Seminar’ in Sydney on 28th November conducted by the Tourism Industry Council NSW and the ICRT-Australia.

Dr Sarah Perkins of the Climate Change Research Centre (UNSW) revealed that extreme weather events are increasing and the number of hot days will increase as a direct result of human induced CO2 emissions. This will increase the threat of bushfires in Australia.

Bushfires are not only an environmental threat but a high economic risk. The economic impact of the recent fires in the Blue Mountains region has cost the local tourism industry over $56 million in six weeks alone, said Randall Walker, chair of the Blue Mts. Lithgow and Oberon Tourism. The economic waves were also felt outside the direct Blue Mts region with many of the seminar’s participants reporting that their neighbouring regions had seen a drop in visitors number as a direct result of the fires in the Blue Mts.  This suggests that visitors take safety very seriously and prefer to avoid a wider region than just the localised bushfire impacted area.

Perceptions of where the fires were located was a major cause of concern for Walker who pointed out that the fires did not consume the entire Blue Mts. destination, but affected only sections. He cited that some media reports gave a false impression of the situation and recalled examples where the inaccurate naming of fires as “the Blue Mts bushfire fires” suggested a region wide impact. Despite endeavours to encourage the media to use the specific bushfire locality names, reports continued to suggest a large affected area resulting in people staying away from the region. Many international travel organisations were reported to have diverted tourists. It might be argued that long-term this might  demonstrate  that tourism can adapt to climate change impacts i.e. visitors simply move to safer destinations. However, it not possible for affected locations to so simply adapt with consequential long-term visitor economy impacts and mounting insurance pressures on high bushfire risk tourism properties or ecotourism experiences.

Preparing a crisis communications plan, in the event of a natural disaster, was explained by Dr David Beirman from University of Technology Sydney.  He demonstrated that it requires a sophisticated multi-channel recovery plan where communication efforts must be coordinated and presented by a key spokesperson. Beirman gave international examples showing  the need to ensure media accuracy, considered use of social media, the preparation of communication materials and management systems, including training, to ensure the destination was proactive rather reactive to media coverage. “You are managing the destination’s reputation and consumer trust,” said Beirman.

Following the catastrophic Black Saturday fires, Tourism Victoria and the CFA have worked hard to develop a programme which improved education, communications and preparedness for destinations, operators and visitors. Dr Stuart Toplis from Tourism Victoria presented 10 key findings from their programme. He emphasised that it was essential to establish a strong working relationship between emergency services and tourism. Tourism Victoria works with Victorian Tourism Industry Council in a collaborative manner under the ‘Tourism Crisis Management Group’ to work with emergency services, destinations and subsequently operators and visitors; an arrangement that is not in place in NSW.

Toplis also outlined workshops, media management and visitor information activities that were conducted in Victoria. Tourism Victoria’s current activities involve integrating its bushfire information into general tourism collateral so that it reaches visitors outside of bushfire danger periods and presents it as normal destination advice. Despite these measures Toplis confided that challenges included “apathy, people are going back to their old ways”.

The third part of the seminar concentrated on understanding why tourism providers did not prepare sufficiently for bushfires and how to turn preparedness into an opportunity.

Caroline Bollrich summarised her master’s thesis report (Leeds Metropolitan University) on barriers for bushfire preparedness. This unique study of 30 tourism providers in a high bushfire prone region at the South Coast of NSW , showed the complexity of tourism providers’ decision making.. While operators where aware of the threats of bushfires Bollrich’s findings showed that they were generally unprepared with inconsistent plans, unclear communication channels and low levels of training. Only 10% of the tourism businesses had any staff and guest evacuation plans in place. This scale of preparedness was confirmed by Tony Jarrett, acting Community Manager of the RFS who confirmed that only 10% of the residents in the Blue Mts region held any bushfire survival plans and few undertook regular training. These findings suggest that NSW tourism and rural communities are not sufficiently prepared for bushfire threats beyond simple property protection. Consequently visitors, staff and the overall visitor economy are at high risk.

One method to encourage wider tourism provider participation in being prepared is to promote the dual benefits of taking action and offering a better visitor experience. The ICRT’s Christopher Warren presented examples of how tourism managers could engage with tourism using parallel motivations. Warren showed nine examples involving visitors in reducing bushfire threats to generating wider tourism cooperation. “While tourism owners and managers are aware of bushfire threats they have may other factors which they consider priorities, a strategy is therefore to develop a suite of activities which have two parallel benefits, one to improve the experience/destination while at the same time reducing risks”, said Warren.

Recommendations:

1.       Use the online resources found here

2.       Destination managers should review assets and devise a preparedness plan which involves tourism operators and community, strategies can be found here

3.       Conduct a training programme for guides, caravan Parks, B&B and other rural tourism providers, contact local emergency services or ICRT