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Dialogue: Tropical Locations' David Kevan

Old Asian Hand and Respected Travel Operator Shares his Thoughts on the Ins and Outs of Selling Bali Holidays in the U.K..

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Veteran travel operator to Asia from the U.K., David Kevan caught up recently with to discuss one of his favorite destinations – Bali. The Managing Director of Tropical Locations, David has long been outspoken for a different approach in the way governments issue travel advisories.

Tropical Locations was recently named "best specialist operator for value" by the prestigious Condé Nast Traveller (U.K.) magazine.

The Interview: David Kevan of Tropical Locations David, you're a well known, long-standing supporter of Bali. On a practical business level, how have the bombings of 2002 and, most recently of October 2005, affected the size of your market to Bali and you ability to promote the island?

Kevan: Bali was doing superbly up to the bombings of 2002. Bookings were up, and just as important, client satisfaction with the destination was as close to 100% as you can reasonably expect. However once the UK Government came out with a negative travel advice, the bookings just fell away. We still carried a few clients, but these tended to be foreign nationals living in the UK, such as French and Spanish, and they were influenced by their own Foreign Office travel advice that said travel but be cautious.

Given what was going on in the world, with bombs in Spain, Morocco and Turkey - all of which had short term negative travel advice if at all - most of us could not understand why the restriction continued to be forthcoming on Bali as it seemed to make no sense. However from my personal point of view, it was political, as it was seen the Australians did have some unspecific warning on a possible attack and as our Government shared information with the Australians, by implication we knew as well. So as long as the Australians kept their advice in place, so did the UK. In the background of all this, you also had some possible legal action by the Australian survivors or relatives of the bombs, and I think this made our Government think more than twice about relaxing the advice. The UK recently modified the way their travel warnings are issued. How do you view travel warnings and how they serve the public and the travel industry?

Kevan: I began to get vibes in early 2004 that things were about to change. Both our PM and Foreign Secretary were being criticized in many quarters, and particularly from the Commonwealth, about the unfairness of our travel advice generally, and frankly I think they wanted to get it off their desks and into the area where the consumer made the final decision.

I attended several meetings on this, and each time you felt the revision was getting closer. I traveled back to the island in May 2004, and in a typical arrogant British way, I expected Bali to be empty, feeling that if we had not been coming, no one had. But what I saw was the reverse - the island was doing fantastically well, most hotels had moved on and found alternative markets, and far from the island looking depressed, it was in fine form, with several new hotels, many new restaurants.

The travel advice was eventually revised in late June, a little too late to attract the instant impulse purchase clients, as air fares in July and August are some of the highest in the year, however bookings did gradually improved in September and October. At the top end, our clients are aware of the seasonal weather variations, so arrivals in the period November to February tend to be low, even in a good year, and they start to pick up from March onwards. This is exactly what happened in 2005 - the first few months were quiet, but then gradually improved, and arrivals in July to September were almost back to 2002 levels.

Of course the bombs in October 2005 put a dent into this, and our thoughts have to go out to those who were injured or died. However the world has moved on since 2002 with so many disasters, either natural or through terrorism, and very few cities have escaped totally. So our Government could not come out with a negative travel advice on Indonesia, after pleading for tourists to still come to London, without appearing totally hypercritical. As a result we had just one cancellation, and that was because the wedding they were attending had been moved to Langkawi.

What we don't know is how many clients were considering Bali and then diverted, however given my earlier comment that the Up-market British client tends to ignore Bali in the winter months, I think the real impact was minimal. Yes arrivals in October to February will be low, but they always are.

Without putting our clients at risk, we are into building a relationship with hotels and destinations. We don't just cut and run and find a cheaper alternative when the going gets tough. Bali is an important part of our South East Asia product, particularly in the summer months when most of the region has a more unsettled climate, so I view summer 2006 with confidence. How do you view the fundamental long-term "brand equity" of Bali as compared to other Asian destinations?

Kevan: I think Bali is a superb destination. The quality of the hotels is outstanding, and the smiles are the most genuine and spontaneous in the region. And of the of course the culture - instant and so very attractive. The beaches are reasonable, although for me they would never be the reason for selecting Bali. You have good resort contrasts within the island. Kuta may not be to everyone's liking, but every island needs one resort like this, you just don't need lots of them. Nusa Dua is man-made, but as example of how it should be done, I think it’s a great example. I like Sanur, with its village style, although you have to explain that the beach here can be disappointing, so if sea bathing is important try Jimbaran instead. David, you're the expert. Describe for us your perfect Bali holiday.

Kevan: My perfect Bali holiday would very much depend on who I was traveling with, so have to be a bit careful here! I would certainly travel around the island combing different resorts and of course at least 3/4 days in one of the superb hotels in Ubud. Personally I like small boutique hotels with private pool villas, so that might influence my choice, although if accompanied by my more boisterous young son, I might select somewhere less breakable. How's the Bali product changed, for better or worse, over the many years of your experience with the destination?

Kevan: I have been coming to Bali for about 30 years, so I qualify for veteran status. Of course it has become more commercialized, and there are a few things in Kuta I don't like, but that could be as much to do with my advancing years as anything else. Personally I might now put a cap on the number of hotels, portray an even more exclusive image, and then move the prices up a fraction. One thing you have to stress is that whilst it has all become more commercialized, Bali is one of the few places that the real culture of the islands exists hand in hand with tourism, yet the very essence of the attraction remains very much intact. Finally, we have to ask, if you could have the ears of Bali's Travel Industry leaders, what sage counsel might you offer on how to promote and preserve their destination?

Kevan: There has been a lot of discussion about the lack of a tourist board in the UK, and this absence is sad. However a tourist office with no budget and the wrong personnel is probably even worse. You have to have both, a sensible budget for promotion and the right people. If Bali does not have the funds to l

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