In this edition of Academia Meets Life, I’m reviewing an article about something that I think is in the back of every travelers mind. However, how we handle this information and knowledge varies dramatically from person to person and traveler to traveler. I’m talking about perceived travel risks: what if something really bad happens when we are traveling?
This article assessed whether risk perceptions of traveling abroad impact decision-making. In particular, the authors were interested in assessing whether or not first-time and repeat travelers have different perceptions of risk, particularly after terrorist incidents and SARS.
Common sense would indicate that the answer to this question is “definitely”. Without a doubt, I think familiarity helps to reassure people and lower risk perceptions. As a species, we tend to gravitate to what we know. With travel, the first experience probably needs to be a good one: I’d hypothesize that if something bad happened to you–or you were inconvenienced by an event that occurred–that perceptions of risk will be higher. Not to say that these individuals wouldn’t travel again to the same location, but they may change their behavior.
But we should never assume anything…so I think it’s appropriate the authors decide to do some actual, empirical research. Thailand is a good case, too, as it’s a very popular destination. They interviewed inbound tourists to Thailand and then also interviewed service providers in the hospitality industry. The first interviews were conducted during an outbreak of bird flu (more appropriately known as highly pathogenic avian influenza) and while terrorism was occurring in the southern provinces, but before the terrorism in Bangkok.
The authors–with qualitative and quantitative results–report that travelers cited SARS, bird flu, and terrorism as the top three reasons that they wouldn’t travel to Thailand. I think this is amusing, considering terrorism was ramping up in some regions of Thailand at the time and there was already bird flu there…and these travelers were already IN the country. So clearly the travelers perceived these to be important risks–but they weren’t risks that changed their behavior. In large part, the authors suggest this is because they did not see the threat as relevant–it was in a different part of the country, infrequent, and they knew how to protect themselves from bird flu.
As expected, there were differences in how first-time travelers and repeat travelers perceived risks. In particular, first-time travelers perceived higher risks of disease than repeat travelers (i.e., they worry about getting sick way more than repeat travelers!). Repeat travelers perceived higher risks from increased costs or travel inconvenience (i.e. costs going up and/or being inconvenienced was a major concern for them and would be a reason they would avoid Thailand). The two groups really didn’t view terrorism differently, which I thought was an interesting finding.
So how did this impact the tourism industry in Thailand? The authors used a qualitative approach and interviewed 15 tour operators/agencies. I wish they had done more quantitative analysis on this subject–as we all know that 15 tour operators/agencies are a drop in the ocean of those that exist in Thailand. Nonetheless, they do find that disease did have some impact–particularly on restaurants serving chicken, but terrorism did not have any impact until the bomb blasts in Bangkok.
From an academic perspective, I do think its important to discuss the generalizability of the article–in particular, the sample size of travelers (i.e. how many people were interviewed) was small, and most people were 20 to 39. I’m guessing this is pretty representative of the people that go to Thailand, but I would be careful about generalizing these results to “all” travelers or “all” destinations. And as mentioned, I thought the analysis on tour agencies/operators was incomplete: drawing conclusions from only 15 operators seems a bit premature, particularly barring any other quantitative analysis on occupancy rates, sales, and the like. I also worry that interviewees may have felt like they needed to say something worried them–i.e. terrorism or higher costs–in order to complete the survey, even if they didn’t actually feel that way.
Nonetheless, this research does confirm some of what I assumed: first time travelers and repeat travelers to a destination do not have the same perceptions of risk while traveling. I’d be really interested to dig below the surface: what is the tipping point for experienced travelers? I.e. when are the risks (of higher costs, inconvenience, or disaster) too big to continue traveling to a destination? For inexperienced travelers, how do they gain information about risk, and what is the empirical evidence about how the source impacts the perception?
What do you think? How do risk perceptions factor into your travel decisions and destination selection?
Citation: Rittichainuwat BN & Chakraborty G. 2009. “Perceived travel risks regarding terrorism and disease: The case of Thailand.” Tourism Management. 30. 410-418.