Travel brochures and websites, advertisements, tv and radio marketing campaigns all promote holidays as places of calm. Images of relaxing empty beaches, serene spas, restful boat trips, silently drifting hot air balloons and tranquil hotel rooms bombard people looking to book their next break.
However, the world does not exist like that. Political and economic turmoil, armed conflict, terrorist atrocities, medical emergencies, climate change and labour unrest can all conspire to upset the apple cart spectacularly and instantly. Especially so these days, when the travel trade can make few long-term assumptions. Whereas in the past it could pretty much count on a steady little-changing stream of tourism business in each destination year in, year out, so many factors now have exploded any complacency out of the water.
Take ebola. That crisis devastated tourism throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Even though it was mainly restricted to a small pocket of west African countries that virtually no tourists visit, countries many hundreds of miles away in the east of the continent, such as Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, saw visitor bookings plunge. Even though the ebola epicentre was nearer Madrid than Addis Ababa or Kigali.
Devastating for the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh
The 2013 Arab Spring suspended tourism in a number of north African states, from Egypt to Tunisia. Egypt’s luck has continued to fare especially badly, and the fallout from the Russian holiday jet that crashed last October, which ISIS claim was caused by a bomb they planted, has been devastating for the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Egypt’s number of foreign tourists fell by 40% in the first quarter of 2016, compared with the same period last year, although recent pictures of tourist spots there would suggest that it is much worse.
Turkey’s tourism industry has also suffered greatly following terrorist attacks. Holiday firms area reporting that summer bookings are down by up to 50% on 2015. Turkey has experienced six terrorist bombings in the past eight months. A huge reduction in Russian tourists caused by sanctions imposed by Moscow after a Russian warplane was shot down by Turkey has made the situation even worse.
Thankfully extremely rarely, a travel industry company has to deal with an almost unprecedented hoorendous event, such as when last year Lufthansa, parent company of discount carrier Germanwings, was faced with responding to a plane crash for which one of its own pilots was blamed. Some crisis communicators criticized the company for not doing more to reassure customers about their safety. A year before, Malaysian Airlines was plunged into crisis when it lost two aircraft less than five months apart.
Conflict between Israel and Hamas fighters in the Gaza Strip have restricted tourism in Egypt and Israel, an anti-corruption initiative in China has had a knock-on effect in destinations such as Macau and Las Vegas, while Thailand saw a touristic downturn following an aggressive military takeover. Some tourists are avoiding Greek islands for fears of them being awash with migrants. Lethal attacks by religious extremists at Kenyan beach resports have done much damage there. Economic woes in Argentina have led to a rise in violent crime and travel restrictions.
Europeans are increasingly opting for ‘staycations’ brought on by lowering disposable incomes due to economic woes, but terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels have seen non-Europeans shunning Europe also. Travel data firm Hopper says online searches by travellers comsidering Europe are down 13% compared to last year. Less dramatic incidents such as Switzerland’s lack of snow in the ski resorts and last year unpegging the franc to the euro (resulting in costlier holidays for foreigners in Switzerland) have seen a noticeable decline of foreign visitors too.
Official government travel advisory services are often quick to give a knee-jerk response to events affecting safety, which are often over-conservative, if only to ensure that travellers do not later make them liable for not providing enough warnings. However, such governmental advisories are usually much slower in getting warnings removed when the situation has calmed down. Many travellers not put off visiting destinations with perceived safety issues are unable to visit anyway as many travel inasurance policies are invalid when official governmental travel safety advisories advise against visiting.
What should a travel company do?
So what should a travel company do to minimise its exposure to the fallout from crises like those detailed above?
Firstly, it’s a good idea to assume the worst could happen, so you can plan ahead in good time to put in place and prepare your crisis team in the event disaster were to strike.
During a crisis staff need to be informed, to share news and developments, to establish and stick to the facts and always be honest. It can be tempting for a company to bury its head in the sand, delay, attempt a cover up or hope the problem will blow over but all these could instead greatly exacerbate problems.
Be prepared for working around the clock. A big crisis will affect different time zones. Marketing may have to be cancelled at short notice — you don’t want to be seen promoting a destination when tragedy has just occurred there. Monitor social media, and remind staff not to discuss the matter on their personal social media accounts.
Consider purchasing crisis management insurance and expert PR specialising in crisis management. Following a travel-related crisis and seeing how the company at the centre of it deals with the situation can be illuminating.
The company should, if applicable, always ensure it is not promoting or relying upon one destination too greatly, so that risks are spread.
It should ensure it has the means to transfer bookings and future marketing to other destinations as quickly as possible. If there’s a need to evacuate tourists speedily, it is important to implement this, and dispense advice and directions quickly and efficiently. If a travel company doesn’t put ‘all hands on deck’ to push a crisis like this to a top priority and to contain the problem, the resulting bad publicity afterwards could be very damaging — especially in this age of widespread social networking, when a negative experience can go viral in seconds.
The winners in the travel industry are the ones who respond most quickly and effectively to these challenges. And whilst destinations are always going off limit to tourists for one reason or another, ones that previously were not suitable for tourism come back intro the fold — as we have seen with Myanmar and Iran, for example.