Who more powerfully shapes foreign public opinion of a country: a public diplomacy staff member in government or a tourist from that country?
It’s probably impossible to say, but a case can be made for the latter if one thinks of the massive difference in scale between tourism and public diplomacy. International tourism is a trillion dollar industry. In 2011, there were an estimated 982 million international tourist arrivals. Public diplomacy activities can only pale in comparison.
There may also be a qualitative difference in terms of influencing views. After all, the government and its representatives are inherently assumed to be strategic communicators, trying to show the country’s best face. Doesn’t that diminish the power of the message — or make interactions seem instrumental and contrived? Tourists, on the other hand, are non-strategic, at least to the extent of acting in the nation’s interests, and would seem – in terms of perceptions — to offer the more authentic representation of the country and its people.
If a country’s tourists are engaged in bad behavior frequently — for example, tourism for the purpose of criminal behavior or even widely disdained, yet legal activities, e.g. the sex industry — it could easily result in a widespread belief that the country itself, and its people, are generally immoral or dangerous. I cannot imagine a country’s public diplomacy efforts surmounting that sort of common sentiment easily — even if its foreign policy is received positively.
Robin Brown wrote a short blog post saying:
we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of tourism within the public diplomacy field.
He argued it matters for three reasons. The first is essentially the point above, that tourism shapes perceptions of “others.” Second, states’ perception management activities are often aimed at boosting tourism. And the tourism industry of each state tries to impact public diplomacy and nation branding efforts to attract foreign visitors.
It seems that tourism, though richly studied as a sub-field on its own (see academic journals), presents a challenge for public diplomacy scholarship. Thinking of PD in institutional terms, centering on the coordinated activities of governments and officials addressing foreign publics, has its advantages. It gives the primary actors a mailing address — a “who” — and presumes some level of control over messaging and actions. This means we can speak of “programs” such as “exchanges,” and other formalized activities intended to convey ideas, further relations, change perceptions and so on. This focus constitutes, and therefore constrains, much of the research.
There are methodological challenges, as well. Tourism, in terms of interpersonal communication, is at the ethnographic level, making it much more difficult to research. Its messiness calls on deeper research to really understand. Interviews with officials in countries capitals simply won’t provide the insight needed. For PD scholars, it is tempting to toss tourism into the category of “noise” that makes delivering the signal of government communications so difficult.
A case could be made that tourism is the real public diplomacy and government programs are marginal.
Given that international tourism is growing, especially with emerging powers, e.g. the BRICs, and also in places not known as tourist attractions, it makes sense to heed Brown’s call.
I wonder to what extent states’ foreign ministries might start to consider tourists as ambassadors, and whether programs educating or even training them might be carried out — whether in the form of leaflets for departing citizens, airport signage, domestic media campaigns or through embassies. Should governments spread the notion of tourists as bearing an obligation to represent positively their country overseas?