Taiwan recently announced in the trade media that it was a safe tourist destination. Their claim, based on the low level of crime in the country, was timely as it appeared soon after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Promoting itself as a safe destination was a bold move by Taiwan and signals an important change in tourism marketing.
Safety is increasingly seen as a competitive advantage for tourism destinations; well at least those destinations that can legitimately substantiate the claim. In their 2008 Country Brand Index the PR and marketing firm FutureBrand listed the top 10 destinations for “safety” in order as: Norway, Switzerland, New Zealand, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Monaco, Belgium, Austria and Australia.
The Index covers 54 countries and examines a range of destination attributes, such as history, art & culture, accommodation, natural beauty, fine dining, shopping and value for money – so the inclusion of safety as part of destination image is important recognition of its current role in travel decision-making.
In December 2007, Apichart Sankary, president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents, recognized visitor safety as a serious challenge for his country. In an eTN article he said, ”In my opinion, safety is the biggest concern for the private sector because safety is the most significant reason for visitors making their decision to travel.” Recent events have proven him correct.
Some issues related to safety are obviously beyond the control of travel agents and tour operators, and even the destinations themselves. The UN World Tourism Organization refers to these as “external threats” and they include terrorism, civil unrest, infectious disease outbreaks and severe weather.
Civil unrest is and political turmoil are particularly destabilizing. In the past two weeks Fiji and Thailand have needed to issue statements to reassure visitors that they are safe following outbreaks of civil unrest.
Fortunately, the travel industry is well supported in monitoring these global events with timely travel advice provided by government agencies. The award-winning Foreign and CommForeign and Commonwealth Office, onwealth Office (FCO) is particularly noteworthy. Daily monitoring of the FCO website and prompt attention to industry bulletins by travel agents and tour operators should largely serve to discharge legal due diligence responsibilities for external threats.
Travel insurance is the second critical factor in the safety net. Travel agents and tour operators should continue to recommend that clients have in place an appropriate travel insurance policy – one that includes provision for emergency medical evacuation should this be required. As the well-known industry saying goes, “if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel.”
When it comes to safety within the tourism industry; that is, safety of premises and activities provided by suppliers at the destination, the European Union Package Travel Regulations place particular responsibilities on package tour operators. Essentially, operators are directly responsible to their clients for ensuring suppliers provide goods and services of appropriate quality and standard.
This is becoming more important as clients choose to travel to more exotic and out-of-the-way places, especially developing countries where operational standards are not the same as in established destinations. What this means is a package tour operator in say, London, relies heavily on the hotels, resorts and excursions at a destination to deliver safe services.
Travel agents and tour operators have various measures available to them to screen suppliers at the destination. The Federation of Tour Operators (FTO), for example, is an industry champion in the field of health and safety. It produces a benchmark handbook that offers guidance on standards related to issues such as fire safety, food hygiene, pool and beach safety, building safety and general risk management. Many tour operators go further by employing their own inspectors to monitor the standards of their suppliers at destinations.
Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) members also have access to a comprehensive health and safety database, the ABTA Resort Check, containing details of more than 20,000 properties worldwide. Keith Richards, ABTA head of Business Development, notes, “It is important to have in place a suitable due diligence process, and the ABTA Resort Check can form an important part of that process.”
Increasingly hotels and resorts are themselves recognizing the importance of health and safety credentials. Companies like the UK-based CheckSafetyFirst offer a range of audits and on-site inspections, with more than 500 accredited hotels across 11 countries available on their website for consumers to search. There is also provision for travelers to report unsafe hotels so that suppliers can improve their standards.
In an age of almost instantaneous communication, many in the travel industry have traditionally seen safety issues as a negative thing that frightens customers and damages reputations. This view is clearly changing.
Recent market surveys show that safety is an important consideration in travel planning, right up there with other measures of quality service. Safety is reported as particularly important for tourists from Asia, families, and for the growth market of Y Generation travelers whose main safety concern is crime.
While it is impossible to prevent all mishaps from occurring, given that people on holidays in unfamiliar environments do some very unexpected things, agents and operators can protect themselves and their customers by monitoring government travel advisories, promoting travel insurance and favoring those suppliers at destination that make a genuine effort to maintain health and safety standards.
Dr. Jeff Wilks is a psychologist and lawyer specialising in tourism health and safety. [e-mail beskyttet]