EDITORIAL: Destinations that spend big should know truth will out

This week, 189 countries will be setting out their wares at London's ExCel for World Travel Market 2003. It is the biggest-ever incarnation of a show which now calls itself 'the global event for the travel industry'.

In a sector still reeling from the triple-whammy of economic downturn, SARS and terrorism, destinations will be trying harder than ever to convince holiday operators, travel agents and conference organisers of their individual appeal.

To do so they are adopting the language and behaviour of FMCG marketers.

Qatar, keen to emulate the tourism success of Dubai, is using the show to completely rebrand itself. Meanwhile, Mallorca has signed up actor Michael Douglas in a brand endorsement deal worth £3.3m. And a large swathe of destinations are using the show as a chance for their marketing directors to brief operators and journalists on how they are brightening up their national image.

Destination branding has always been a contentious business. In the 80s a rather cynical British public was told that post-industrial Glasgow really was 'Miles Better'. In the 90s we endure the New Labour and Britpop smugness of 'Cool Britannia'.

Unfortunately, major country marketing campaigns tend to emerge to address an underlying problem. While Qatar may be safe, visitor numbers will inevitably be hit if tourists lump it in with nearby Saudi Arabia, where animosity towards Westerners continues to grow.

Similarly, tourism to Mallorca, the golden isle for UK holiday-makers in the 80s and 90s, has been decimated by the now-defunct 'eco-tax' and soaring prices following Spain's adoption of the euro.

Such campaigns can work. Barcelona's rebirth in the early-90s has pushed it up the city break league table to a point where it rubs shoulders with Paris and Amsterdam. And New York's charm offensive since September 11 2001 has led to an amazing recovery in tourism.

But like any successful marketing strategy, such campaigns must be based on 'brand truth'. For example, it is no good spending millions of pounds on positioning Bali as 'safe' if there is any further risk of terrorism.

All the good work could be undone in one fell swoop.

The London Olympic bid marketers, who will no doubt be attending WTM, have a similar challenge. Next week marketing director David Magliano will unveil the logo and positioning statement which he hopes will convince the world that London is the right destination for the 2012 Games.

If London 2012 were to position the capital as the world's prettiest or friendliest city, they would surely be undone by stark consumer experience.

If it is promoted in terms of its ethnic diversity, vibrancy and tolerance, it stands a chance.

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