Terrorist attacks across the world are now happening with a frightening regularity. In March 2016 alone, there were 9 major terrorism incidents (Brussels, 2 in Turkey – Ankara and Istanbul, 3 in Pakistan – Shabqadar, Peshawar and Lahore, Ivory, Nigeria and Mali) which collectively resulted in around 220 deaths. I wasn’t even aware of the last 3 attacks, all in Africa until I started researching for this piece.
For many years, when I have been talking about current and future threats to the travel industry, I have used the phrase “We live in an unstable world”, and this is becoming ever more pertinent. What is becoming an increasing concern for the tourism industry is that tourists, and the infrastructure they use are becoming regarded as legitimate terrorist targets.
I have previously written about how this is directly impacting on the destinations chosen or avoided by tourists, and reading the trading updates from both Tui and Thomas Cook over the past 2 weeks, the extent of the destination shift from the Eastern Med, and particularly Turkey and Egypt, to Spain is very apparent, as tourists from all the major source markets look to book destinations which they perceive to be “safe”. Whether that perception will match the reality is a topic on which the whole industry will be collectively holding its breath for the Summer.
I have previously written about the extent to which the travel industry should be warning its customers of the risks in the destinations to which they travel, and shortly after I wrote that particular item, a major firm of claimant lawyers decided to start legal proceedings against Tui in relation to the attacks in Tunisia in June 2015. Whilst I haven’t seen the full claims, from the press reports, it appears that part of the claim is to suggest that tour operators may have specific destination knowledge, which might oblige them to go further than simply highlight the travel advice published by the Foreign Office. This concept troubles me greatly, as the industry have consistently, and in my view, appropriately relied on the Foreign Office as being the definitive source of information as to any destination which is genuinely unsafe for British citizens to visit. I struggle greatly with the concept that a business should be expected greater or different knowledge to that of our government – and have always believed that the apparent objectivity of the Foreign Office should be the standard to be followed.
It appears that the Foreign Office themselves are questioning the role of their own travel advice, and have therefore published a consultation seeking views from travellers and from businesses on whether they should change their approach to travel advice.
Whilst that consultation is only open for a very short period – until 22nd April, it is important, and a topic on which as many people as possible should feed back to government, whether in a personal capacity or on behalf of their businesses. ABTA is also seeking to ensure that it represents the views of the travel industry back to government, and has published its own questionnaire to its members to get input to enable them to prepare a response.
Whilst much of the consultation seems directed at simply obtaining information to help the Foreign Office understand how travellers use their advice, there is a hint at a potential policy change within the paper. At present, there is some structure in travel advice, both in relation to the threat of terrorism (the advice will state whether there is in each country a high threat from terrorism, a general threat from terrorism, an underlying threat from terrorism or a low threat from terrorism); and in relation to whether a country is unsafe for British citizens (the advice will either say that the country can be visited subject to normal safety precautions, there will be a warning against all but essential travel, or a warning against all travel).
The formal warnings against travel remain relatively rare, and just over a week after the Brussels attacks, whilst there is a warning on the risks, there is no advice to avoid all travel or even to avoid non essential travel to Brussels. This is understandable, and it is easy to see how uncomfortable the UK government would have been after the 7/7 attacks in 2005 or after various IRA bombings if other European governments had warned their citizens to avoid London.
However, the consultation goes on to suggest 2 potential changes, which may make life harder both for travel businesses and for travellers generally.
The Foreign Office are considering replacing the fixed warnings on the level of terrorism threat with more information on the frequency and type of terrorist attacks. Whilst it is understandable that government may be reluctant to express an opinion on the likelihood of terrorism, in case they are proved to be wrong, surely the government, with all the intelligence available to it, should be the most definitive guide on the likely level of risk to its citizens? The indication of the likely level of risk is helpful, and may be combined with more detailed information, but certainly this shouldn’t be a substitute for the risk analysis.
The Foreign Office are also considering introducing a new level of travel advice, similar to that used by a number of other countries, to indicate a country where there is no advice against travel but where extra caution and vigilance is recommended.
Whilst there is in theory no difficulty with adding such a level, there is a very practical concern for the industry about the implications of this new level. In particular, if the new level is adopted, will travellers expect to be allowed to cancel their holidays without penalty? It is also important to understand how widely this level of advice would be used. It would be easy to add such a warning to almost any country which has been subject to some form of recent attack. Such generic advice would add little real value, and would simply add a layer of confusion.
It is particularly important that government continues to recognise the importance of its travel advice both to travellers and to travel businesses, and that it does not seek to weaken its effectiveness by becoming less specific. The current advice works well, and I would urge the Foreign Office to avoid making unnecessary changes simply as a back covering exercise.
 For more information on this consultation, see https://www.gov.uk/government/news/travel-advice-consultation-launched