Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Travel warnings issued by Western governments because of terrorism fears are a matter of grave concern for Southeast Asian leaders, who on Monday called for a more sympathetic approach.
At their first meeting since bomb attacks in Indonesia and the Philippines killed more than 200 people, leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) vowed to take firmer and more united action against terrorism.
Issues such as economic integration and trade liberalization have been partially eclipsed at the Phnom Penh gathering by security concerns, particularly after the Oct. 12 attack on Bali, a destination that up to now has attracted 1.5 million foreign visitors and another million Indonesians a year.
Tourism is a major earner and job provider for Southeast Asian nations, and the effects of terrorism have shaken the industry.
Most ASEAN members have featured in recent advisories by U.S. and other Western governments warning their nationals about risks of terrorism.
Several governments in the region have taken up the matter with foreign diplomats, arguing that travel warnings could have a more serious economic impact than the security situation itself.
Australia most recently tangled with Indonesia over its advice that travelers consider carefully whether they should visit, or remain in, the world's largest Muslim country after some 90 Australians were killed in Bali.
The U.S. Embassy in Manila late last week warned American citizens that the terrorist threat "remains high" in the Philippines, where a series of bombings occurred during October.
And a new State Department announcement for the whole of Southeast Asia was issued on Saturday, warning of the potential for terrorist actions against Americans at places where foreigners tend to gather, including restaurants, resorts, schools and places of worship.
Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said he understood Western governments had little choice and had to "warn their people" about threats, but added that in Thailand's case, "this is not fair because there are no threats here."
ASEAN secretary-general Rodolfo Severino voiced concern about the warnings, saying while it was true there were terrorist cells in Southeast Asia, they also existed in European countries - "but nobody is calling, or issuing, advisories about travel in Germany and Britain."
The grouping raised the concerns about travel advisories in a joint declaration on terrorism, released on Monday, which also condemned the "heinous terrorist attacks" in Indonesia and the Philippines.
"We call on the international community to avoid indiscriminately advising their citizens to refrain from visiting or otherwise dealing with our countries, in the absence of established evidence to substantiate rumors of possible terrorist attacks," it said.
The leaders argued that this "could only help achieve the objectives of the terrorists."
One of the early tourism casualties of the Bali bombing was a conference on "sustainable tourism," scheduled for Indonesia in late October and organized by the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), a regional tourism authority.
PATA said it was forced to cancel after many speakers and delegates pulled out after the U.S., Australia and European governments upgraded travel advisories.
It plans, however, to work together with Indonesian authorities to help the country rebuild its tourism sector, and will hold its next annual meeting - next April - in Bali.
John Koldowski, managing director of strategic intelligence at PATA, said Monday the travel warnings had a "quite serious" effect.
"Past experience shows that while they are very quickly applied, they are often not updated well or frequently and are slow to be removed."
Koldowski also said there was concern that, in the mind of the consumer, a travel advisory meant "don't go" - even when many advisories simply warned travelers to be aware.
It was too early to quantify shifts in tourism resulting from Bali, he said, although there had been some cancellations or transfers to alternative destinations.
"We know of course that hotel occupancy rates in Bali dropped significantly after Oct. 12, some down to single-digit levels."
Koldowski conceded that how Western governments handle valid concerns about citizens' safety was a "million dollar question."
"Obviously we need to have a balance between protecting traveling citizens and being fair to the destination in question," he said.
"Advisories should be based on solid intelligence and not just 'gut-feel.'
They should be specific - if at all possible - and not be applied willy-nilly across a region. They need to be continuously re-assessed in the light of new developments and updated accordingly, and they need to be lifted when the threat is seen as being mineralized."
Terrorism, tourism, trade
In a separate move on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit, Thailand is set to join a new regional counter-terrorism pact to share resources and intelligence, currently comprising Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia.
ASEAN will also reach out to countries beyond its membership, such as China, Japan and South Korea, to enhance regional anti-terror cooperation.
As part of a program to boost tourism - which was on the agenda long before the Bali bombing - ASEAN nations will commit themselves to ease visa requirements and improve air services.
Trade is another key focus of the meeting, and a highlight will see the grouping sign an agreement with China - not an ASEAN member - aimed at achieving the world's largest free trade zone within a decade.
Formed in 1967 with a primarily economic focus, ASEAN today has expanded to a membership of 10 - Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.
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