Arnie Weissmann The other day as my wife was walking down the street, she overheard this conversation: Im thinking of going to Madagascar. Really? Its supposed to be just wonderful. The people speaking did not look even vaguely like adventure travelers, my wife thought, so she kept apace to eavesdrop a bit longer.

And it became clear in another sentence -- Its playing at the Loews Cineplex -- that they were talking about the movie Madagascar, not the country.

When a destination with a low tourism profile is blessed by the fleeting gaze of Western popular culture, that blessing is likely to be mixed. It must be puzzling for tourism officials to know what to do with the attention of people known for having a short attention span.

For some tips on what to do, Madagascar might look to the South Pacific nation of Palau. Tourism officials there recently faced this dilemma/opportunity when the nation hosted the premier reality television show, Survivor, from February through May.

Mary Ann Delemel, who has been the managing director of the Palau Visitors Authority (PVA) for 24 years, said she had been waiting for a long time for something like this to happen.

The last time Palau was in the news was in 1993, when John F. Kennedy Jr. visited with Daryl Hannah. We were all over the tabloids, and Gannett [news service] picked it up. U.S. News and World Report ran the headline, JFK Jr. puts Palau on the map.

(Incidentally, the current Presidents father was also once a visitor to Palau, but that didnt make the papers at the time -- it was during World War II, and Mr. Bush Sr. was trying to sink Japanese warships that were parked around the islands.)

The Survivor episode piqued considerable interest. Before the series began, the PVA Web site received about 1,000 visitors a month. During the run of the show, the site attracted 1.2 million visitors a month.

Though Delemel initially saw this as a boon, she soon found it had some unintended, and unwelcome, consequences. A Palau senator immediately tried to cut her budget, saying that the show was worth publicity 10 times the annual expenditures to promote tourism, so there was no need to spend as much this year.

As luck would have it, Delemel had, for the first time, hired a mainland U.S. public relations firm, Burditch Marketing Communications, in February, and its president, Paul Burditch, came out to the island and made the rounds of the local media. On one radio program, Burditch warned, Your work is just beginning.

Survivor also was filmed on the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, Burditch later told me. I was out there not too long after, talking to the owner of a hotel company, and he wondered why people didnt show up after the series aired -- he said there was no lift in his business.

I asked him what he did to keep the momentum going. He said nothing. I told him that the show was the starting point, and that they need to constantly educate people.

After hearing Burditch speak on the radio, the senator changed his mind, and withdrew his request to reduce the tourism budget.

Even with a solid PR campaign to back up the TV series, Burditch is only cautiously optimistic about what the show might do for the country. I ask myself, Are Survivor watchers the types who would really go there, or only dream about going there?

And, the image of Palau that Survivor watchers came away with was not exactly typical of what tourists might see. The show was filmed on an uninhabited island, whereas Palaus residents -- and most visitors -- stay on one of the eight (out of 400) islands that are inhabited.

Delemel is predicting only a 6% to 8% rise in tourism this year (currently, of the 80,000 total annual arrivals, only 10,000 to 12,000 visitors are from the U.S.). Beautiful as it is, an American really must have a strong desire to go there -- its about a 19-hour flight from Los Angeles, and the fare is expensive.

Still, Delemel is determined to make the most of it, and her attention is fixed not only on the U.S. Ive heard from European Survivor, Russian Survivor and Latin America Survivor, she said. The door has been opened. I guess its up to us to get people to come in.


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