Hard Sell

The PR spin that keeps tourists coming when rabies, kidnapping, and other calamities make headlines

Iraqi soldier

An Iraqi army soldier stands guard duty while Iraqi army soldiers from the pass through a highway checkpoint.    Photo: Michael Larson/U.S. Navy

Perhaps the toughest job in the travel industry belongs to those who must convince tourists that a destination is safe in the wake of, say, serial kidnappings. We spoke to pitchmen in some of the stickiest spots on the planet to see how they manage crises without whitewashing.


Narcoterrorism

Mazatlán, Mexico

Mazatlán, Mexico   Photo: Darlo Lopez-Mills/AP

PR Challenge: In 2010, there were more than 300 murders in Mazatlán, many of them beheadings. The city was once a spring break mecca; now it's a stronghold of the Sinaloa Cartel, and the U.S. State Department is warning people to stay away.

In the Hot Seat: Glenn Sorrie, proprietor of the Casa de Leyendas bed-and-breakfast and Macaw's restaurant and bar

The Spin: "Our lodging business is down, but our tavern business is actually up. The problem is getting people down here. Once tourists are here, they have a great time. I'm not going to say terrible things haven't happened—the beheadings are very real—but tourists aren't going to see that stuff. There's evil in every city in the world, but the travel advisory has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's killing us."


Rabies

Bali, Indonesia

Bali, Indonesia   Photo: Sonny Tumbelaka/Getty

PR Challenge: At last count, 132 people had died after contracting rabies from the island's feral dogs.

In the Hot Seat: John Daniels, president of Bali Discovery Tours

The Spin: "Those cases were all outside the tourist areas. I haven't heard of a tourist getting rabies, but maybe somebody was bitten and treated that I don't know about. Meanwhile, there's been a big vaccination drive for dogs, and officials claim we'll be rabies-free by 2013. There are fewer stray dogs on the streets than there once were, because a lot of them have been poisoned. Of course, now we have a plague of rats because we're losing the dogs. Dogs are excellent at catching rats."


War

Iraqi Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan   Photo: Ayman Oghanna/Redux

PR Challenge: Despite having its own semiautonomous regional government, Kurdistan still sees its share of violence from the war. And of course, in 2009, three Americans were snatched by Iranian security forces as they hiked along the border.

In the Hot Seat: Geoffrey Hann, owner of London-based Hinterland Travel, which operated four vacation tours of Iraq in 2011

The Spin: "We crossed the border from Iraqi Kurdistan to Iran several times this year, though nobody knows what will happen now that Britain has closed its Iranian embassy. We always have proper documentation, we travel with two security guards supplied by the Kurdish minister of tourism, and we get police escorts in certain places. Finding guides and translators in the region is a problem, but in November I found some reliable people who can help me lead treks next year."


Kidnapping and Murder

Lamu Archipelago, Kenya

Kenya   Photo: Simon Maina/Getty

PR Challenge: Two European visitors were snatched and a third killed by Somali pirates on the coastal resort archipelago of Lamu in the fall of last year.

In the Hot Seat: Federico Moccia, owner of the Majilis Resort, which sits on the island where one of the visitors was kidnapped

The Spin: "Things have fallen off completely. But the Kenyan navy is patrolling the archipelago, and soldiers patrol the beach every night. We doubled our own security to eight armed guards who work around the clock. We're looking at the last quarter of 2012 for things to get back to normal."

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