By Stephanie Furler
There has been a torrent of media articles following the recent deaths of Australians in Laos and the near death of another. Much of this negative publicity calls for fresh regulations in the local tourism industry and prosecutions of people breaking the already existing (and fairly lenient) rules.
In case you missed it, the deaths have stemmed from “tubing”. This involves sitting in tyre tubes while floating down the Mekong River and stopping along the way to drink (excessively) at makeshift bars.
It all sounds fine - until ridiculously cheap and sometimes free home-brewed whisky is mixed into the equation.
It’s then that backpackers start jumping from rickety two-storey towers and swinging from ropes into shallow, rocky water below.
So what can we take from these deaths from a PR perspective?
Tourism is Laos’ fastest-growing industry but there has been no public comment from the Lao National Tourism Administration, addressing the fatalities or the international backlash.
Granted, it is a very strict Communist country and its values and way of life are different, but if this situation was applied to a business or government organisation in the Western World, the time to go public would have been a month ago.
In some situations a “no-comment” policy works – but this isn’t one of them.
Businesses need to constantly assess their position when an issue becomes a public concern. Timely and appropriate comments can reassure the public and ensure that someone else doesn’t fill a news vacuum.
It is unlikely that any of the regulations being called for in Laos will be implemented, so it’s important for the Tourism Administration to work with international government agencies and media to educate tourists about the dangers of tubing.
The need for personal responsibility is a something that many journalists fail to mention in their stories and is a key message that the Tourism Administration should be pushing.
The only information on the Administration’s site that remotely resembles a warning about excessive behaviour (after much searching) is in comic form.
No mention of tubing.
It is important that organisations tailor messages to their key audiences and clearly in this case, the message needs to be louder, broader and maybe delivered with less levity.
A carefree, unregulated holiday destination is an appealing prospect for many Australians, but if the negative publicity continues, tourists may be deterred from visiting Laos.
Stronger messages, better issues management and awareness campaigns are essential to keep this industry thriving.