WTM panel: Media shape opinions on tourism

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LONDON -- In the immediate wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, there was "very responsible news coverage" of events, according to Keith Yazmir, vice president, communications at NYC & Co., New York's marketing organization.

However, after the first case of anthrax, he said, "we have felt differently about that coverage."

Yazmir was a panelist in a World Travel Market session here on how the media influence travelers' perceptions of safety at destinations.

He said his office has "worked hard with media to ensure balance," and in the wake of Sept. 11, he has encountered a new phenomenon: reporters who ask, "What do you want me to say?"

The press is "clearly interested in helping New York to communicate messages," he said, adding he believes the world has gotten a message that "New York is a heroic and resilient place."

The media discussion was sponsored by the Jordan Tourist Board. Taleb Rifai, Jordan's minister of tourism, said the role of media is to provide the free flow of information, "a right that we should not undermine."

He said, "We share with everyone the [Sept. 11] tragedy, like every decent human being," and, as a tourist destination, Jordan is suffering losses like destinations elsewhere.

However, Jordan is "doubly victimized," he said, because of generalizations applied to all countries in the Middle East and the resulting public perceptions about the region.

"Tourism can't be a real industry without real education and understanding" of destinations and their differences, he said.

Speakers from other regions echoed his remarks. Beatrice Buyu, managing director of the Kenya Tourist Board, said of Africa, "Always the bad news is reported, and knowledge of African geography is bad ... We ask the media to say the truth -- and be fair to Africa."

Ken Scott, director of communications for the Pacific Asia Travel Association, said the media have contributed to public sophistication about the world, but the Pacific region nevertheless remains a victim of generalizations, too.

Keith Betton, head of corporate affairs at the Association of British Travel Agents, said the media are doing the industry a disservice when stories are unbalanced or they push "just to keep a story going" well after the news has been reported.

John Bell, a freelance journalist associated with CNN, said, "No one is hurt by telling the truth. [When choosing destinations] travelers can make decisions on their own."

But he agreed that the press needs to learn more about the travel industry while the industry needs to learn more about the press.

Steve Keenan, travel editor at The Times of London, added, "Our role is to say what is true on the ground, and it is up to people to make their judgments.

He said that, due to limited time, space and resources, the media cannot cover everything all the time, and his paper has sent reporters to points in the Middle East, for example, to look at tourism there in the wake of Sept. 11.

He said he did not see the need to send a reporter to New York until things there have "settled down" a bit. To this Yazmir said, "You [the media] are part of the process of helping New York settle down."

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