Understanding the environmental risk communication needs of Chinese tourists: FINAL REPORT
Australia’s unique and diverse natural environment is a key draw-card attracting millions of tourists to this country every year. Images of clean beaches, untainted wilderness areas, wide open spaces, and exotic and (mostly) friendly wildlife have regularly featured in tourism marketing and the mass media for decades. The nation’s climate is represented as varied and unpolluted, offering a panoply of outdoor and adventure tourism activities. However, could these representations, without being complemented with effective risk information, be leaving tourists’ relatively unprepared for environmental hazards such as bushfires and heatwaves?
Research (and theory) can play an important role in understanding what environmental beliefs tourists bring with them how their travel behaviours might be informed, or at least mediated, by these beliefs. This project involves a series of interviews with Chinese nationals studying and holidaying in Australia, and ‘potential tourists’ in China, to explore their understanding, or ‘representation’ of the natural environment, and what risks it may pose (if any). We also explored how, and when, risk information could be most effectively shared with tourists to equip them for their travels.
Our findings are telling. Participants’ responses in Australia and China cohered around a number of key themes. Current and future Chinese tourists held a generally benevolent and ‘positive’ set of beliefs about the Australian natural environment and degree of potential risk inherent within it. For a large majority of participants, the environment was conceived as ‘clean’, unsullied, underpopulated and, on the whole, relatively safe. Australia’s native fauna, including koalas and kangaroos, characterised the environment. Far fewer respondents’ recalled concepts related to any kind of environmental hazard, risk, or threat. When directly questioned about their views on what risks were present in the natural environment, a majority of respondents in Australia and China identified small bugs, spiders, snakes and lack of mobile phone signal as key hazards.
This research is a first step in enhancing the depth and breadth of knowledge on how Chinese tourists ‘see’ the Australian environment and how they prefer to receive risk information. Our findings provide much needed evidence upon which risk communication efforts could better designed and disseminated to inform safer decision-making amongst Chinese tourists.
This project also conducted, in collaboration with Shandong University, a Chinese tourism stakeholder workshop in Jinan. A vibrant and positive discussion with tourism academics, government tourism officials and tourism business leaders on the risk communication needs of Chinese tourists generated a range of recommendations. These included the design and dissemination of Mandarin language risk information resources such as brochures, websites and a text alerts service to promote safe travelling, and employing Chinese social media formats, including Weibo and WeChat. Tourism stakeholders were keenly aware of the need to fashion risk messages to meet the information needs of different cohorts of tourists, especially Free and Independent Tourists (FIT).
These findings have important implications for Australia’s tourism and emergency management sectors. The Chinese tourism market is growing exponentially, and a significant group of Chinese tourists are now venturing beyond the relative safety of organised tours and travelling independently into regional and remote wilderness areas. Notionally, the diversification of destination choices is positive and economically beneficial; broadening the range of tourism experiences Australia can offer will nuance the market, and thus attract greater numbers of tourists with diverse interests. Simultaneously, however, FIT introduces a new amalgam of risk management and communication challenges. Because some Chinese tourists speak little English, their capacity to engage with mainstream risk information is seriously constrained, and their lack of experiential knowledge of Australia’s environment compounds this risk. A clear imperative exists to improve risk communication for Chinese tourists, simply because they can be unreasonably exposed to natural hazards because of their lack of experience with, and of, the environment.
This report recommends that a multi-component communication approach be adopted to enhance safe travel amongst Chinese tourists. Social marketing and risk communication research strongly advocates that segmented (to different audiences cohorts) messages, communicated through various channels including social media, websites, interpersonal, and text messaging, can foster greater awareness and lead to safer, self-protective behaviours.
As this research has highlighted, Australia’s natural environmental ‘image’ amongst Chinese tourists as generally safe, clean and pristine, remains intact. Yet ironically, perhaps, we propose that partly because of such representations, some Chinese tourists are at heightened risk – lulled into an overly optimistic, heuristic belief that the environment can similarly be deemed safe. Although the tourism industry may hold concerns about endangering its hard-won portrayal of the Australian environment as a destination of pristine beaches, koalas and kangaroos, it may wish to equivalently consider the reputational risk that accompanies uninformed travel behaviour, and the dire consequences that may arise from these. Evidence-based, targeted risk communication that aims to remedy tourists’ risk does not necessarily tarnish a destination’s reputation; however, it can diminish the probability of avoidable death and morbidity as a consequence of uninformed behaviour.