The deaths of 30 Britons in Tunisia two years ago has shone a spotlight on the industry’s role in advising and protecting customers. Amie Keeley reports
When a gunman opened fire on holidaymakers in a popular resort, he set out to wreak havoc.
Not only did he kill 38 people, including 30 British customers of Thomson, but Tunisia’s tourism industry was decimated as the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) advised against all but essential travel.
As the families begin civil proceedings against Tui after last week’s inquest delivered a verdict of unlawful killing, questions are being raised over what responsibility the industry has for safeguarding customers.
The coroner has asked for recommendations from the victims’ families, Tui and the government to see if anything can be learned to avert future deaths.
Travel companies have already begun to implement changes, while the FCO is due to update the way in which terrorism threats are described and improve how it communicates advice online.
Tui now includes links to FCO advice on every web page throughout the booking process, while staff have undergone extra training. FCO information cards are also displayed on agents’ desks.
Tui UK and Ireland managing director Nick Longman said it was time to “further reflect” on the coroner’s findings and the visibility of travel advice.
Thomas Cook said it too had “come a long way” in the past two years, introducing similar changes on its website and training staff to direct customers to FCO advice.
A spokesman said: “We know we’ve got more to do, particularly in our shops, and customers will see more changes in the next few months to improve access to the information they need.”
Abta said it had been working with members to ensure they directed customers to advice in line with its code of conduct, but said the onus was also on holidaymakers.
Chief executive Mark Tanzer said: “Since 2015, we’ve worked with members to ensure that they direct customers to travel advice. This practice is not perfect and we will continue to work with members to make sure their customers are aware of where to find travel advice.
“It’s also important that holidaymakers ask questions and learn about the destination they are visiting. We will explore further ways in which we can promote the Foreign Office Travel Aware campaign.”
According to a new Travelzoo survey, safety and security on holiday was topmost in the minds of 97% of consumers.
Most of the 6,000 respondents said the company that sold the holiday was most responsible should things go wrong.
Richard Singer, Travelzoo’s Europe president, said: “Regardless of court rulings, if our customers see us as guardians of their safety, we must think long and hard about the information we present to them.”
He said easier-to-understand information on websites, and certification – similar to the Blue Flag system for beaches – for safety and security, would help build trust among consumers.
The Sousse attack is one of many terrorist incidents in recent years. The downing of a Russian passenger jet in Egypt, and attacks in France and Belgium, are still fresh in peoples’ minds, as are security problems in parts of Turkey.
Former Airtours boss and industry consultant Richard Carrick said the industry was dealing with a “completely changed landscape” that required a fresh look at how security and danger were assessed and communicated.
“The world has changed in the past 10-20 years, so we need to see if the processes we have in place are fit for purpose,” he said.
“Operators, airlines and European governments need to collaborate more in some sort of framework, or standing committee. If we don’t, we will be found wanting as an industry.”
Since the attacks, Tunisian authorities have ramped up security procedures. Under a UK government scheme, a team of police officers from the National Counter Terrorism Police has been deployed to upgrade security at airports, hotels and tourist spots.
The Tunisian National Tourist Office said CCTV, metal detectors and scanners, as well as 24-hour police patrols around hotels, had also been introduced.
Borders with Algeria and Libya have been tightened, and a list of extremist nationals fighting abroad compiled. According to the Tunisian foreign minister, 22,000 people entered the country illegally in 2011; in 2016, it was 1,000.
Mounira Derbel Ben Cherifa, director of the Tunisian tourism office in London, said: “The impact on the livelihood of almost a million people is hard, especially those who run local businesses such as restaurants, bars, taxis, excursions.”
He said French and German tourists were visiting in their thousands after travel advice was relaxed, while Belgium changed its advice last month, allowing Thomas Cook to schedule charter flights from April 8.
Meanwhile, Cherifa said MSC Cruises planned to reintroduce Tunisia ports of call “very soon”.
“Tunisia is officially open for business,” he added. “No tourist has been attacked since June 2015.”
However, the FCO has not indicated any intention to change its advice for the country.
Travel Weekly visits high street agents to see how they respond to a holiday enquiry for Turkey
The FCO warns of a “high threat from terrorism” in Turkey but does not advise against travel. Turkey has the same threat level as Tunisia had prior to the attack. Travel Weekly told agents we were keen on Turkey, but incidents had worried us.
• FCO Travel Aware campaign cards visible on every desk, but could not be seen once seated.
• Agent said it was not her place to advise on whether I should visit a destination or not.
• I was told they followed FCO advice about selling a country.
• Links to FCO advice on the back of printed quotes.
• Agent said Turkey was a good choice, as it was currently cheap.
• She said Turkey was “fine”, with Egypt and Tunisia the main concerns because of flight bans.
• She told me to look online for advice, but didn’t suggest where.
• Advised me to read up on Turkey, but did not mention FCO advice, even when asked where information could be found.
• I was told holidays would not be on sale if Turkey wasn’t safe.
• Didn’t offer an opinion when asked whether Greece was safer.
• I was told Turkey was safe and tour guides can make alterations if anything happens.
• The agent asked if I’d seen the FCO’s online travel advice and gave me the web address.
• I was told my deposit could be switched to another trip if anything happened in Turkey after I had booked.
The FCO carried out a public consultation on travel advice last year. It looked at whether changes could be made to provide a greater level of detail and better understanding of the level of threat travellers face.
The survey polled 1,009 members of the public and 36 travel organisations. Two-thirds of respondents agreed current advice was “authoritative” and “accurate”, with the industry regarding it as an “essential service”.
A proposed fourth tier of advice was rejected after it was considered “confusing” by the industry, which feared it would impact consumers’ willingness to travel. However, more clarity and narrative explaining risks was called for.
The FCO now plans to improve the design of its advice pages and to describe threat levels in terms of predictability, extent and context, and, where possible, to include the host government’s counter-terrorism actions.
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