Tourism and Terrorism

Recent events in Tunisia have demonstrated just how vulnerable tourists can be when they travel on holiday. The tragedy of what happened in Sousse shouldn’t be underestimated, but it also shouldn’t come as a total shock either. Attacks on tourists are not a new thing;

  • In 1997, 62 people, mostly tourists, were massacred in Luxor, Egypt.
  • Just over a year later a group travelling with a British adventure travel company were kidnapped in Yemen and three Britons and one Australian were later shot dead.
  • In 2002 over 200 people (91 of them Australian) were killed in a bomb attack in Bali.
  • Terrorists bombed a popular Marrakech cafe in 2011, killing 17 people, most of them tourists.
  • Tunisia has seen two major attacks, specifically targeting tourists in the last 12 months.

The question is what can be done to prevent them in the future? The rise of the “lone wolf” or “clean skin” perpetrators of such attacks, certainly makes the already difficult job of the security services that much harder in detecting potential terrorists. However, the burden for protecting travellers shouldn’t rest entirely with governments and the security services. Tour operators have to realise and understand that they have a responsibility for the safety of their customers before they arrive at a holiday destination.

Certainly most British tour operators will claim that they comply to Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advice, but that’s simply no longer enough. In order to qualify this, you have to understand how the FCO advice is put together. As with all government advice, there’s a high degree of diplomacy involved and the British government is well practised in ensuring it doesn’t upset “friendly” nations. The language in such advisories is often vague and leaves plenty of room for self-interpretation.

If you look at the FCO advice it will often say “See our travel advice before travelling”, but doesn’t offer specific advice in countries popular with tourists as to whether you should actually travel, merely that you read the advice and then make your own decision. In fairness, it does highlight high risk areas and either “advises against all but essential travel” or “advises against all travel”, which is more useful, but leaves it to you to define what you consider “essential travel”. A business trip? A holiday to meet a loved one? You decide.

Contrast this with the Australian Government, which is much clearer and breaks its advice for its citizens into 4 easily understandable categories;

  1. “Exercise normal safety precautions”
  2. “Exercise a high degree of caution”
  3. “Reconsider your need to travel”
  4. “Do not travel”

Using this methodology, tour operators would have to justify why they are sending tourists to areas where the government advises that you “exercise a high degree of caution” and demonstrate that they have robust risk mitigation procedures in place in order to best protect their clients. This is an area where the vast majority of travel companies have not kept up with what is actually happening in the world.

The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) recognised back in 2013 that “There has been a recent increase in terrorist activity in Tunisia, including an explosion on the beach next to the Riadh Palm Hotel in the tourist zone in Sousse on 30 October (2013). Further attacks can’t be ruled out and these could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners, like hotels and shopping centres. You should be vigilant at all times.” It goes on to direct travellers to the FCO website.

Tour operators and organisations like ABTA would do well to take a look at the expedition industry in the UK, who have for a while now adopted British Standard (BS)8848 as the benchmark for how they operate. Even the FCO have recognised the value of BS8848 and in June 2015 included a section on their website about the standard. www.gov.uk/safer-adventure-travel-and-volunteering-overseas 

The problem with BS8848 is that like all British Standards, compliance is voluntary and relies on companies having the moral fortitude to comply with it. However, it does represent the most robust guidance on operating safely overseas currently available.

Tour operators need to start looking how they can improve their procedures and this includes carrying out threat assessments on every country they operate in, or are thinking of operating in. These threat assessments must contain up to date information on security threats to foreign nationals, and for this they are going to have to engage with specialist security advisors. The problem with this is that it’s going to come at a cost and many operators will prefer to take the chance that it (a terror attack) won’t happen to them, but at what cost to the lives of people who decide to travel with them?

Many of the eye witnesses of the attack in Tunisia said that when they first heard the shooting they thought it was someone letting off fire crackers. Unfortunately we no longer life in a world where when we hear loud bangs we think fireworks and celebrations, instead our first thought should be bombs and bullets and we need to take evasive action. Tour operators need to ensure their staff have a higher level of training to know what to do in such circumstances. Gathering lots of people in a hotel reception in order to await updates is not acceptable and creates a very tempting target for terrorists.

The media also need to take more responsibility in such incidents. I was astounded when watching events unfold in Tunisia that a British TV news presenter, who was on the phone to people in Sousse, was asking them which hotel they were in, whilst the situation was still ongoing. The response came that they were all gathered in the reception area of Such and Such hotel. If journalists think that terrorists don’t monitor the media, they are sadly deluded. In a more coordinated attack with multiple perpetrators, such information could have proved fatal.

Individuals also need to be aware that if they post their location and what is happening to social media the bad guys can access it and they (the tourists) make themselves a target. Having standard operating procedures in place for such attacks can no longer be deemed alarmist, but a necessary reality in the world in which we live.

Equally, emergency response and crisis management plans must be effective in dealing with the aftermath of events like those we saw in Tunisia and not rely solely on government resources. Again, this will require a higher level of training and knowledge of crisis management from tour operators.

Consumers have the right to ask their travel companies what measures they have in place to protect them whilst they are overseas. The rules have changed and it’s no longer acceptable for tour operators to hide behind the FCO and membership to trade organisations like ABTA and AITO. Instead they need to raise their game in order to keep people safe before and during their holidays.