Are Smaller Cities Across Asia Neglecting Their Online Presence?


This post is also available in: French

Google often receives take-down requests from local governments scattered across the world. A take-down request is a request from an organization or individual for Google to remove content from the internet (or just the link to the content) which the organization or individual believes to be wrong or damaging in some way. Google rarely complies. But this points to three things:

1. that local governments recognize the need to manage how the public views them;

2. that local governments see the internet as contributing to their public image;

3. that local governments seek to manipulate their online images.

When thinking about a trip to a new place, most people I know will do a Google search that place. And the types of webpages and information that Google gives them material on which they decide – what they’ll do in the city, how long they’ll stay and indeed, whether they’ll go at all. Cities which present clear useful information to the tourists (or the investors) are simply more attractive.

Branding cities

Here’s some quick theory from two place branding specialists. Firstly, Keith Dinnie, who’s somewhat the global guru on place branding:

As cities compete globally to attract tourism, investment and talent, as well as to achieve many other objectives, the concepts of brand strategy are increasingly adopted from the commercial world and applied in pursuit of urban development, regeneration and quality of life. (City Branding: Theory and Cases. 2011 p. 3)

And a quote from Magdalena Florek, another place-branding specialist:

Websites are the primary, the most popular, and nowadays obligatory tool in branding places… through websites, cities can develop their brands by presenting the system of identification or brand design (city logos, slogans, colours etc.), the city’s offer (packages of target markets, list of tourist attractions, events, pictures etc.), the city’s behavior (news, projects, plans and policies etc.) as well as interacting with city groups through forums and newsletters. (City Branding: Theory and Cases. 2011 p. 82-83)

In other words, city websites matter because they market and promote the city, and form the image of the city online. With this in mind, I did a quick survey of the online presence of secondary cities from across Asia (sticking to the countries that are part of the Asia Development Dialogue project). What was the overall impression and which cities fared the best?

A quick review

Let me note from the outset that I’m not making any claims here to academic rigor or methodological adequacy: my sampling was random and my assessment criteria were subjective.

Another three points:

  • I searched only the name of the city – ie. Chittagong – with no other keywords in the string
  • I only looked at the first page of search query returns delivered using Google (ie. search query returns 1 – 10) because, lets be honest, for must internet users that’s the only page that matters
  • I only recorded four sites: Firstly, the city government’s own website; secondly the city government’s own tourism website; thirdly Wikipedia’s webpage for the city; and fourthly WikiTravel’s webpage for the city.

All the cities have Wikipedia and almost all have WikiTravel webpages (only Martapura, Indonesia and Rawalpindi, Pakistan do not). The results then:

Municipal websites carry news and general information about the city for the citizen of that city. They might list services which the municipality undertakes for its citizens. Municipal tourism websites target domestic and international tourists and tend to try to highlight the city’s attractions.

A grim regional webscape overall with a few nice surprises

The secondary cities in Viet Nam, Pakistan and Thailand come out worst overall. Only two of the eleven cities surveyed have municipal websites, and none of them have municipal tourism websites. As municipal websites, there is a natural tendency to present the councils information in the local language, which is good for the citizen but a bleak prospect for international tourists or investors. Tourists to these cities utilize third-party sites to gather information on the city.

In general, let me point out that the overall quality is low across the region. If you compare the quality of websites of secondary cities in Asia with those of secondary cities across Latin America, the Latino sites coming out looking rather nice and you can’t say that this is solely to do with level of economic development, ease of access to the net or presence of skilled programmers etc.

Municipal websites tend to be in the local language which is fair enough, but in the absence of a second English language tourism website, secondary cities could do well to follow Hai Phong’s lead. The city offers only one site (a one stop shop) which includes information for both the citizen and the tourist/investor. The site’s default language is Vietnamese, but it can be read in English, Chinese or Japanese also.

There are a couple of notable exceptions to the rather dismal webscape described above and these deserve mention. In addition to a standard municipal site, Chittagong, for example, has launched a tourist site which is both useful and quite enjoyable.   It provides good, clear information of key tourist attractions, hotels and restaurants. Also, lots of nice pictures which load quickly.

Overall, websites of Filipino cities come out the best. All the cities surveyed have municipal websites and 50 per cent (admittedly 2 of 4) have municipal tourism websites also – that’s by far the highest of all countries surveyed. Many have both Facebook pages and websites. And in general, the Filipino websites rank quite highly in terms of their position on the page of search query returns. The websites for many cities were buried at the bottom of the page – position eight or nine of the ten returns – and were preceded by websites for hotels, restaurants (in foreign countries), local news incidents etc. Perhaps Filipino cities are working their search engine optimization. Davao was the city whose municipal website and municipal tourism website ranked highest in the search returns i.e. in positions 2 and 3 respectively (with Wikipedia page in position 1).

Of course, there are many ways to view all this – and I think decentralization, transparency, civic engagement and access to information at lower levels of government is a key component. I’ve left these aspects aside for this post, but it is worth noting that in this regard there are commonalities amongst the countries whose secondary cities fare worst in the review. That being said, let me close by reiterating that in a region where tourism is a central and growing sector, cities who improve their online images will surely find it worth their while.

By Rowan Fraser. This post originally appeared on the Asia Development Dialogue blog.