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
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
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.
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.)
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
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
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
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
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.