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Fri 1 Jun 2007 12:00 AM

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Bad publicity

It's important to reconsider a destination's bad media hype before deciding that it's an 'unsafe' place to visit, says Gemma Greenwood.

The safety and security of a destination are of course, prime concerns when travelling, but is anywhere in the world really ‘safe' to travel to these days?

Call me paranoid, but natural disasters are on the rise - from tsunamis to freak storms - all of which have in the past few years impacted countries that are otherwise deemed ‘safe' places to visit.

Who would have thought the Maldives would have been a danger zone in December 2004 when the tsunami struck? The US has also been battered by bush fires and hurricanes of late.

On the flipside, some countries that are constantly slaughtered by the press for their political situations, creating an image that they are ‘unsafe', are in reality as safe to visit as any other country. Life on the ground is routine and citizens are desperately trying to create a more realistic image of their country.

It's a formidable task; how can the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism, for example, compete with the likes of CNN and Fox News, to name but a few of the global news services that help shape the opinions of travellers worldwide? These are PR vehicles far more powerful than a tourism authority.

It was therefore heartening to see countries that constantly receive negative or one-dimensional press exhibiting at last month's Arabian Travel Market (ATM) in an attempt to give delegates a well-rounded picture of what to expect from their respective tourism infrastructures.

Lebanon, Iran, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe were all out in force despite the political issues impacting each of them.

The Lebanese contingent included Minister of Tourism Joseph Sarkis and at the time of press, the country's tourism industry was lobbying for a 100-day political truce to stimulate leisure tourism this summer.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan Government used ATM as a platform to declare the war-torn country a safe place to visit. Faiszer Musthapha MP, Deputy Minister of Tourism of Sri Lanka told me there was "no issue" and despite some airlines suspending their services to the Sri Lankan capital Colombo during the first week of May, the Ministry of Tourism and 25 travel partners still managed to fly to Dubai for ATM, where they erected a stand double the size of last year's effort.

Musthapha said tourists were not impacted by the destructive activities of the Tamil Tiger rebels and said the government's plan was to promote some of Sri Lanka's unique attractions during this period of strife.

Back to the Middle East and the Iran stand was a sight for sore eyes; no more dowdy and depressing cubicles as witnessed at World Travel Market, but instead, an eye-catching giant illuminated Perspex façade projecting a contemporary and welcoming image of a country so often bogged-down by negative publicity.

The stand highlighted Iran's ancient cultural highlights and was flanked by the country's burgeoning private airline, Mahan Air, which is expanding slowly but surely.

One delegate remarked it was probably safer to visit Tehran than New York - he was probably right.

Who is to judge whether a country is a ‘safe' or ‘unsafe' place to visit and how can we as consumers really know the true picture unless we visit for ourselves?

I have visited both Lebanon and Iran of late and would have no qualms recommending both destinations to friends and family. Sri Lanka is next on the list...

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