Image by darkroom productions, via Flickr

When I landed at the Luxury Travel Expo (LTE) in Las Vegas this winter, I noticed a few grim faces on the trade show floor among the showgirls, hula dancers and baby kangaroo in attendance.

While travel advisories and tornado warnings are par for the course for most tourism boards, tour operators and travel agents, 2011 seemed especially fraught with travel catastrophes.

Whatever your views on the ethics of “disaster tourism” (vacationing in a site recently hit by a natural or political disaster), there is no getting around the fact that with disaster comes devastating financial consequences for an industry reliant on foreign dollars.

A month after last year’s magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami, Japan experienced a 62.5 percent decline in tourism, according to reports, while Egypt’s minister of tourism recently announced a drop of 3.7 billion in industry revenues for 2011.

The long-term effects of the Jan. 13 Costa Concordia accident on the cruise industry have yet to be measured. Though Bloomberg news reports no notable drop in bookings in the wake of the tragedy, parent company Carnival Corp. has suspended broadcast, digital and direct-mail advertising “for the time being” and the loss of the ship will cut the company’s earnings by up to $95 million.

From civilian unrest to natural disaster, here are just a few of the problems presented – and some of the solutions proposed – at the conference.

Crisis: Political turmoil
Solution: Be the experts

It turns out the very same reasons luxury tour operators are sought out by discerning travelers are their strengths in times of political crisis: teams on the ground with strong ties to state departments, embassies and locals in-the-know, from concierges to car services.

The same brands which promise five-star hotels, charter flights and insider experiences are the ones that can access safe havens, flights abroad and first-hand information.

It also helps that luxury travel clients often seek out adventure and remote locations that might turn off less-experienced tourists. Rather than ask for a refund as soon as their tour stop shows up on CNN, they’ll follow up on the headlines with in-depth research, or simply place a call to their tour provider directly – not really an option when you’re booking last-minute at an all-inclusive resort.

The bottom line: Crisis can flare up anywhere. “All you can do is provide good, accurate information,” said Scott Wiseman, president at Abercrombie & Kent, USA, during a panel discussion titled Handling Challenge and Change. “In the end, customers make the final decisions.”

Crisis: Natural disaster
Solution: Make a deal

"ANA 787" Advertisement displayed in Haneda Airport following the tsunami. Image by Infradept, via Flickr

When there were rumours that the Japanese government was going to be handing out 10,000 free plane tickets to Japan in the wake of the earthquake, any fears international travellers may have had about travelling to the country were quickly quelled (just look at the giddy reactions to this piece in the Guardian).

The plan was later dropped for budgetary reasons, but the idea behind the promotion is sound: If you discount it, they will come.

As Wiseman pointed out, a good deal can outweigh even health and safety concerns: “When we put [trips to] Cairo at 20 percent off, no one was interested. At 30 percent off, same thing. But at 50 percent off, everyone was suddenly interested. More were prepared to travel there in 2012 than the year before, without the same concerns.”

Other panelists noted the same trend in the U.S. after September 11, when seemingly insurmountable safety concerns were lessened thanks to the power of the price cut.

Crisis: Global recession
Solution: Sell memories

This is one point where everyone in attendance was in agreement (perhaps unsurprisingly, as most luxury operators offer one-of-a-kind experiences, from after-hours tours of the Vatican to artist studio visits in Beijing).

Image by luisvilla, via Flickr

Rather than turning travel into a dream out of reach, the financial crisis may have actually elevated the value of vacations.

People with (relatively) diminished budgets want to be travellers, not tourists, said Tauck CEO Dan Mahar. They want to spend money on experiences rather than trendy goods, and they would rather come home with a story than a shopping bag.

They also want to spend valuable time with family and friends, and 2012 predictions included the continuing popularity of destination weddings as well as the rise of destination-based family reunions.

Crisis: The apocalypse
Solution: Have fun with it

Image by AmateurArtGuy, via Flickr

There’s no doubt that Mexico’s tourism board has had to balance a lot of negative press with promises of safe, serene getaways far from border towns and violence… but, on a lighter note, how do you put a positive spin on doomsday?

“Everyone says 2012 is going to be the end of the world,” explained a tourism rep for Mexico during LTE, “but we believe it is simply the end of the Mayan calendar – a time of hope and renewal.”

And they’re backing it up with a series of happy-go-lucky events and projects, including a countdown clock in Tapachula, a gathering of shamans and spiritual leaders in Cancun, and the opening of new archaeological sites to tourists.

The Mexican tourism board predicts an extra 30 million people will travel to Mexico in 2012 – and, with any luck, they’ll return in 2013.

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