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“Tourists can travel to the island and witness something undoubtedly unprecedented for themselves,” Spain’s tourism minister commented recently about the La Palma volcano eruption. Photo: EPA-EFE

Spain’s volcano tourist ‘attraction’ gaffe is far from the first time tourism boards have got it wrong – or worse, put people in harm’s way

  • Spain’s attempts to use the La Palma volcano to lure tourists upset many, with locals having lost homes and livelihoods in the eruption
  • Adverts tempting tourists to war-torn Syria in 2016 were greeted with widespread disbelief, while Taylor Swift welcoming people to New York ruffled feathers

Tourist chiefs around the world are understandably desperate to entice visitors back following nearly two of the most challenging years, so could arguably be forgiven for displays of overenthusiasm. Spain’s tourism minister, however, seems to have overstepped the mark completely.

Commenting on the volcanic eruption that continues to cause destruction on La Palma, one of the country’s tourism-dependent Canary Islands, Reyes Maroto told Canal Sur radio: “We’re providing information so that tourists can travel to the island and witness something undoubtedly unprecedented for themselves.”

She dug herself deeper: “We can also make the most of this as an attraction so that a lot of tourists who want to enjoy what nature has brought to La Palma can do so in the coming weeks and months.”

With locals having lost homes and livelihoods, many listeners deemed her remarks as insensitive – at best.

“We don’t want backpackers coming to a clean Bali,” said an Indonesian minister, before his comments were swiftly downplayed. Photo: Reuters
Indonesia, too, has been ruffling feathers when it comes to the promotion of tourism, with the minister for maritime affairs and investment, Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, telling The Bali Sun last month: “We will filter arriving tourists. We don’t want backpackers coming to a clean Bali. We want quality visitors.”

Although a spokesman downplayed the comments, saying the minister was referring to travellers who break health rules and other regulations, the authorities in Amsterdam may sympathise. The Dutch city has its own plans to smarten up its tourism clientele post-pandemic. And who can blame them when city councillor, Rob Hofland, puts it this way: “If it is your intention to see the most beautiful city in the world this summer, come to Amsterdam. If your intention is to booze and misbehave, dressed like a penis, look elsewhere!”

India opening its doors to foreign tourists from mid-October

Perhaps those who like to booze, misbehave and dress like penises may not take much offence at Hofland’s characterisation, but tourism bosses and boards were managing to upset people – or, worse, put them in harm’s way – before global lockdowns made the situation altogether more desperate.

In 2019, for example, Nepal was criticised for issuing a record number of permits to climb Everest amid reports of littering, overcrowding (including by inexperienced climbers) and deaths. Reports said that instead of reducing the number of permits, Mohan Krishna Sapkota, secretary at the Ministry of Tourism, was encouraging even more tourists and climbers to come “for both pleasure and fame”.

Other tourist boards have missed the mark with their promotional campaigns. When Taylor Swift wanted to welcome us to New York, not everyone was thrilled. Locals thought the appointment of the singer as tourism ambassador for the city struck an off note as she was born in Pennsylvania, built her musical career in Nashville and had bought her New York home (one of several in the United States) only a few months earlier. They questioned why a native New Yorker, of which there are plenty who are famous, had not been chosen instead and mocked the naive pronouncements Swift made about the city in the promotional videos.

Taylor Swift with fans in New York – but she’s no native. Photo: Getty Images for Spotify

Representatives of NYC & Company, New York City’s official tourism organisation, defended the choice, however, pointing out that New York is a city of immigrants and that Swift reflected the excitement of first experiencing it.

South Australia’s recent Old Mate campaign, which featured an elderly man reduced to tears after visiting a series of locations and culminated in the strapline, “Don’t feel sorry for Old Mate. It’s his own damn fault he didn’t visit Adelaide sooner”, was widely criticised on social media for being ageist and depressing.

Adverts tempting tourists to Syria in 2016 were greeted with widespread incredulity since the country, branded one of the most dangerous on Earth, was in the midst of a war.

One promotional video featured jet skiers and sunbathers apparently untroubled by the conflict raging around them, while another starred an intact Aleppo – a city in which as many as 31,000 people had been killed in fighting during the previous four years – and was accompanied by the Game of Thrones theme tune.

Syrians walk over rubble while carrying their belongings, as they flee clashes between government forces and rebels in Aleppo in 2016. Photo: Reuters

Then there was the 2019 “Be Taken By Albania” campaign, which seemed to reference the county’s reputation for crime and the film trilogy Taken, in which the daughter of the character played by Liam Neeson is kidnapped by Albanian traffickers.

In case we may be in any doubt that the word “taken” was not innocently intended solely to mean “smitten”, the tourism website clarified: “In popular culture, Albania has been colored [sic] as a haven for thugs, criminals, and gangsters. While we understand that perception might make for good movies, like Taken, it’s wholly untrue! In reality, Albania is a beautiful and incredibly safe place to visit and live.”

The campaign landed badly but more successful was Kazakhstan’s (eventual) embracing of Borat, the comedy character devised by the actor Sacha Baron Cohen. Having banned the first film featuring Borat – Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan – because of the negative characterisation of its country and citizens, the country’s tourist board went on to use the character’s catchphrase, “It’s very nice!”, as an advertising slogan following the release of the 2020 sequel.

“It’s very nice!” Kazakhstan eventually turned Borat into a successful tourism tool.

“Kazakhstan’s nature is very nice; its food is very nice; and its people, despite Borat’s jokes to the contrary, are some of the nicest in the world,” explained Kazakh Tourism deputy chairman Kairat Sadvakassov, in a statement. “We would like everyone to come experience Kazakhstan for themselves by visiting our country in 2021 and beyond, so that they can see that Borat’s homeland is nicer than they may have heard.”

Perhaps there really is no such thing as bad publicity.