Hong Kong's travel alerts more a threat to common sense | South China Morning Post
  • Mon
  • Jan 26, 2015
  • Updated: 1:17am
Lai See
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 August, 2013, 4:45am

Hong Kong's travel alerts more a threat to common sense

BIO

Howard Winn has been with the South China Morning Post for two and half years after previous stints as business editor and deputy editor of The Standard, and business editor of Asia Times. His writing has also been published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Wall Street Journal, and the International Herald Tribune. He writes the Lai See column which focuses on the lighter side of business.
 

Readers will be aware that we have expressed our curiosity as to how the Security Bureau is able to categorise the Philippines, Syria and Egypt as having more or less the same level of risk as far as tourist travel is concerned.

According to the government's Outbound Travel Alert system, all three countries are ranked a black alert, which means that people should not travel there. To your average man in the street there would appear to be a massive difference in the personal security risk to travelling in the Philippines as opposed to visiting Egypt and Syria, which is now a war zone. In reply to our queries, the Security Bureau responded: "The Outbound Travel Alert (OTA) system set up by the government aims to facilitate Hong Kong residents to better understand possible risks to their personal safety when travelling overseas, so that they may make their travel plans and arrangements accordingly. When assessing the need to issue an OTA, our primary concern is the threat to personal safety which takes into account factors like the nature (e.g. whether it is targeted at tourists), level and duration of the threat, etc. Our OTA webpage also includes hyperlinks to the travel information databases of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the governments of Australia, Canada and UK. Residents can obtain information on travel risk from these databases when they plan their overseas trips."

The Security Bureau response went on to explain: "We raised the OTA for the Philippines to black in August 2010 following the hostage taking incident in Manila. The incident causes concerns over the safety of Hong Kong residents travelling to the Philippines. As informed by the consulate general of the Philippines, the Philippine President has signed an executive order to promulgate the National Crisis Management Core Manual and the Practical Guide for National Crisis Managers with a view to improving their crisis management capacity. We have proposed to the consulate general of the Philippines to disclose to the public the measures implemented by the Philippine side to enhance the crisis management mechanism and protect the safety of travellers, to understand whether the Philippine government is capable to avoid recurrence of similar incident."

None of this explains why the Philippines warrants being classified in the same light as Syria in which a particularly nasty civil war is raging. But it get more bizarre.

The bureau goes on to say: "We will pay close attention as to whether the measures taken by the Philippine side are able to restore the confidence of Hong Kong people travelling to the Philippines. We will listen to the views of various sectors of society, including the tourism industry, to review the OTA in a timely manner."

So if we understand this correctly, the bureau is saying that in deciding on the risk it will seek the opinion of the tourist organisations and other bodies in Hong Kong in assessing the level of threat to tourists travelling in the Philippines. This seems to be a ludicrous way of deciding the level of threat.

The idea of having a travel alert system is that the government gives its best effort to provide an informed and responsible assessment of the level of risk to its citizens travelling to the Philippines. What is the point of setting up a system when all it does is turn to the people and say: "How safe do you think it is to travel?"

Also we may wonder why it is only the Philippines that gets singled out for this treatment. What of the risks, for example, in travelling to Pakistan? The government feels this only deserves an amber warning, signifying that tourists should "exercise caution". This seems an overly light assessment for a country that not infrequently gives a good impression of being a failed state?

So have the Hong Kong people heeded the government's warnings? The tourist figures would seem to suggest not. Hong Kong tourists to the Philippines numbered 122,786 in 2009, 133,746 in 2010 when the hostage shootings occurred, then slipped to 112,106 in 2011. In 2012, they stood at 118,666. Hong Kong people don't appear to be taking the government's black warning too seriously. Indeed, tourist figures for the Philippines generally are up 23 per cent for the first half of the year, which includes rises of 7 per cent from Japan and 32 per cent from mainland China.

 

Have you got any stories that Lai See should know about? E-mail them to howard.winn@scmp.com

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