How far should the travel industry go to explain destination risks to our customers?

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Reading a recent piece by a prominent consumer activist made me start thinking about what we should be communicating to our customers when they book overseas holidays, and how much information is actually available to us in the industry on this topic.


Many years ago, I was involved in a case which went to the Court of Appeal – although it has to be said that was largely down to the refusal of the claimant to accept the findings of several judges that he had no case. In essence, an Airtours customer didn’t trust banks, so decided to take all his holiday spending money in cash. On arrival in Portugal, despite being advised by the rep that it was sensible to put any cash into a safe, he decided he didn’t like the hotel safes, and elected to keep his holiday money in his wife’s handbag, even when they went to the beach. Inevitably, whilst on the beach, her handbag was stolen, and the customer then decided to sue us as his tour operator, claiming that we were in some way responsible for him not taking his money in travellers cheques or another safe form, and then keeping it with him rather than using the readily available safes.


As you would hope, the customer lost his case at every juncture. However, when the Court of Appeal considered whether he should be granted leave to appeal, they commented that for him to have any chance of success, he would need to demonstrate that Vilamoura (the resort where he stayed) “fell into a special category of danger to holidaymakers of such a marked kind that either the tour operator should have refrained from sending holidaymakers to that resort at all or at least should have given more than the general warnings that they did give to holidaymakers…”


The challenge that the travel industry faces is how to we determine whether a given destination falls into that special category of danger, and what further sources of information should we rely on to make our decisions?


In recent years, most travel businesses have relied on the Foreign Office travel advice as representing the definitive guide as to what is or is not appropriate for our customers. If the FCO don’t warn against travel to a given location, we take that as equating to a positive endorsement that the location is “safe” for our customers – and I have even heard call centre staff being as positive as that. The problem is that increasingly, FCO Travel Advice is subject to warnings and caveats, indicating that there are risks, particularly from terrorism in destinations, and it is relatively rare for the FCO to go as far as directly warning against travel to most countries.


However, the FCO Travel Advice remains the benchmark for decisions on whether or not to allow holiday programmes to operate. Very few travel businesses would wish to operate to a destination in the face of FCO advice saying that British nationals would be unsafe in that destination, and equally, and possibly slightly more controversially, many travel businesses would be unwilling to withdraw from a destination if the FCO did not issue a negative travel advisory. Most will start from a simple proposition: “How can our information and intelligence be more accurate or more reliable than that of the British government?”


There are of course a number of organisations out there who give expert security risk advice. For a (often quite large) fee, those companies will carry out a bespoke risk assessment, and give detailed warnings of almost every hazard that a traveller may face in a destination. In general, these warnings are primarily aimed at companies whose personnel have to travel to very high risk destinations, such as oil companies sending their staff to work in high risk countries, often where the FCO does already warn against non essential travel.


However, these companies will also advise on the risks of travelling to some mainstream tourist destinations – and give that advice in colourful and extremely comprehensive detail. I have seen examples of reports written for large holiday destinations over the years, and frankly, the concept of providing this level of detail to normal holidaymakers concerns me. The danger is that the risks are spelt out in so much detail that the average traveller would simply not want to travel at all. And that is not a view just of someone whose primary interest is in overseas tourism, but I suspect that anyone reading the advice in relation to London would not want to visit there.


In the past, many tour operators had an additional source of information, namely their staff on the ground in destinations, as well as the ground handling agents with whom they worked. The latter, who were or are generally locally based companies who made their living from tourist arrivals could scarcely be said to be an unbiased source of information, but many tour operators recognised that they could provide useful intelligence, as could resort based staff. However, in an industry that is changing rapidly, we have fewer and fewer staff on the ground, and our local intelligence capability is therefore reducing.


In any event, most travel businesses simply used their local knowledge or intelligence to supplement the more formal sources of advice.


Those travel businesses who have associated airlines often have some more detailed security information derived from Transport ministries and other sources on the ground. But this is a very small number of businesses. Looking simply at the data, there are 2200 ATOL holders in the UK, so effectively considerably more than 2000 businesses selling holidays, and there are probably no more than 30 to 40 of these have any direct connections to airlines.


Effectively therefore, the typical travel business has little more detailed information as to the safety and security risks of any destination than that offered by the Foreign Office, or what they can learn by reading news and other speculation. We can hope that ABTA as our trade association with its close relationship with the Foreign Office may be party to some inside thinking on political and security risks, but even this is unlikely to provide a huge additional source of intelligence.


The danger is giving advice on anything other than verified sources like the Foreign Office is doing no more than guessing – and then what happens if we get it wrong? The current approach has the twin benefits of simplicity and clarity.