In February, a British coroner’s court had to rule in a case that raised important matters of principle about the responsibility of tour operators, hotels and governments. In part, at issue were the warnings given to visitors, and the level of responsibility that even the most junior sales staff have in this regard.
Although the background to the case is hopefully unique – it involved a judge sitting as a coroner having to rule on the legal nature of the deaths of 30 British visitors who were the subject of a terrorist attack in Tunisia – it raised several important and potentially troubling issues for the industry.
While the hearing was not about the tour operator concerned, the British Government’s travel, advice, or the woeful inadequacy of the local security personnel involved, much of the evidence and subsequent reporting focussed on this.
In the coroner’s court, it was alleged that the staff of the tour operator when asked about the destination and the resort’s safety, did not point out either the British Government’s travel advice or other prior events elsewhere in the country affecting visitors.
In delivering his judgement, the coroner rejected allegations of neglect against the tour operator and the hotel.
Subsequently, TUI UK released a statement expressing sympathy for the victims and their families, which in part noted: ‘We have now heard the Coroner’s findings and his comments regarding the provision of security and visibility of travel advice. These are complex matters and we have already taken steps to raise awareness of the [British Government’s] Travel Aware campaign. Together with the travel industry in light of these comments we must now take some time to further reflect on these areas’.
What the case did, however, was to place a broader spotlight on what advice travellers should be provided with; how far professional responsibility should go when a vacation has so many moving parts; and the extent to which every visitor should accept, as they would in their home country, that in almost any decision they might take there is an element of risk.
The US and Canada, the countries of Europe, and others like Australia and Japan, regularly issue advisory notices to their citizens to inform them of the risks they might face when travelling to particular countries. These normally address issues such as crime, security or public health, and can sometimes be discouraging given their lack of specificity. Despite this, most tour operators, airlines and travel agents routinely point their customers to the website containing such information.
However, this can be particularly complicated for an industry selling dreams, and can result in tensions. Governments and tourist boards in the host country understandably want visitors to believe that all is well and that nothing will trouble a vacation, while their counterparts in the source market have a legal and moral responsibility to inform their citizens or customers about risk.
Diplomats says that travel advisories are intended to strike a balance between a citizen’s expectation that their government will warn them about any threat to their safety, and the recognition that too strident or disproportionate a warning could result in economic damage to the country concerned and its tourism industry. They also observe that the consequence, behind the scenes, is that what is written then becomes the subject of difficult high level political or diplomatic exchanges about both the detail and the language used.
Vacations exist to encourage us to relax and seek experience, and increasingly to want the authentic.
The problem, if that is the right word, is that in the process the traveller can become too trusting, and paradoxically more liable to be caught up in the unexpected, or in dangerously evolving situations, in ways that no form of travel advice can ever address.