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Safe to Travel? How Perceptions of Safety Are Impacting Global Tourism

Chris Pomeroy

At the 2015 MMGY London Summit, we asked Tom Jenkins, executive director of ETOA (European Tourism Association) how resilient he thought the European tourism industry would be to a major security threat. It was a hypothetical question, but, tragically, just 10 days later Paris was attacked and it was no longer a hypothesis.

After a very complicated year for the industry, we are now in a position to share hard data and facts to accurately measure the impact of safety perceptions on travel behavior today, and thus manage impact in the future.

This year, the MMGY London Summit invited a panel of experts to share insights with an audience of industry leaders and government officials from North, Central and South America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia. The objective of the panel was not to discuss security measures to protect destinations from attacks, not even to discuss crisis management techniques during or after an attack, but more to understand how a perceived threat to personal safety will influence traveler behavior. This understanding of the customer’s mindset is the crucial first step for destination marketers to prepare strategies to ensure the resilience of their tourism industry and even, for the more opportunistic marketing managers, gain market share.

Market share is actually a relevant starting point because, as Carlos Vogeler, Executive Director for Member Relations of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) explained, “global tourism numbers have not suffered from perceptions of safety as much as they have, in the past from global economic down-turns or increases in the price of oil. Globally, tourism continues to grow and this year reached a record 1.2 billion trips.” Global tourism is not reduced by perceptions of safety as the flow of international passengers is almost as unstoppable as a river; when it comes up against an obstacle, it will not stop but simply find an easier path. “Tourists will not stay home, but they will change their destination choice,” Carlos Vogeler stated before underlining the importance of tourism in the promotion of peace through sustainable development of nations and the UNWTO’s role in ensuring that governments do not lose sight of this when faced by a threat to their national security. The UNWTO has a dedicated crisis department that has, for years, monitored and studied the effects of all manner of crisis (natural disaster, health, terror, etc.) on local, regional and global tourism flows. They now have a wealth of information and research from which they have been able to forecast recovery cycles and develop “tool kits” for member states to use when perceptions of safety are impacting on their tourism industry. 

Anyone who has studied psychology or marketing will know that safety is second only to the most primitive physiological needs at the base of Maslow’s pyramid. Applied to destination marketing, safety is always the minimum requirement of any tourist destination. Obviously, nobody is going to consciously and deliberately choose to risk their life or that of their family for the sake of a vacation. This is human nature and will not change. What does change, however, is the tourist’s perception of how real a risk a given destination represents at a given time. Safety is on everyone’s minds today, but is it any more of a concern now than it has been in the past? Rolf Freitag, president and founder of IPK International, whose World Travel Monitor survey has been measuring the impact of travel risk and terror fear on global travel since 2000, had no doubt. “The world is in unrest,” declared Freitag, “as further attacks are expected, global outbound travellers are more concerned than ever before." IPK conducted a special survey in both February and September 2016 to monitor changes in the perception of fear among global travelers. Serious concerns about terror attacks had increased from 43% in February to 47% in September.

So IPK’s research shows clearly that global travelers feel more exposed to terrorism when traveling, but is this actually the case? “Absolutely not,” spontaneously exclaimed both Vogeler and Freitag, with the latter adding, “the world is, statistically, safer than ever before."   

Statistics are often used to reassure. We all know that airplanes are statistically much safer than automobiles or trains and yet still more people are afraid of flying than driving. Statistics are facts and, as such, are only relevant to the rational left hemisphere of the brain. All our research tells us that destination choice is not only a rational decision, but rather one that requires a balanced consensus between emotion and reason. Unless you are promoting your destination as the venue for the annual convention of insurance analysts, using probabilities and rational arguments to counter often-irrational concerns is probably not the best strategy to mitigate fear-induced damage to your brand and your visitation. 

This is certainly the experience of Eduardo Santander, Executive Director of the European Travel Commission (ETC), who has been working hard with his 32 European national tourism organization members to maintain Europe’s position as “the safest place on Earth” for tourists and the world’s favorite region to visit. “Europe is still the region of the world where a tourist is least likely to be affected by a terrorist attack. After the Paris attack, there were travel warnings not to visit Europe." This is like saying, “don’t go to the Rockies because there was an attack in Orlando." Indeed, we have all but forgotten that in the sixties and seventies there were many more terrorist attacks in Europe than there are now.

Perhaps part of the reason for the increased sensibility is that President Bush’s post 9/11 declaration of “war on terror” wherever the terrorists are immediately globalized the perception of conflict and fear. We have become used to traveling without liquids, glancing at the suspicious passenger two rows ahead or seeing of armored vehicles and soldiers patrolling world heritage sites. The fact is that far more tourists died in Europe during the spate of attacks by post-war separatist groups such as the IRA, ETA or The Red Brigade, but these groups were always considered parts of a domestic conflict and, therefore, visitors did not feel threatened. This brings us to the key influencer on the impact of perceptions of safety on global tourism…global media.

An attack by a regional separatist terrorist group in Southern Europe was not considered “newsworthy” by the world’s media, so it was not reported (or was reported just once) and had little or no impact on international travel. The way we perceive the world is undoubtedly shaped by the way we consume media. Of course, the media is in no way to blame for terrorism, but it is increasingly hard to imagine one without the other, and the media does often have the power to decide when an incident becomes a crisis and how they choose to report a crisis has a huge impact global tourism. Julie Freeman, EVP and Managing Director, NJF, an MMGY Global Company that manages media relations for many national and international DMOs, confirmed the influence of the mainstream media and the need to promote responsible reporting. She also pointed out the increasing influence of social media. “Social media can fuel fear and spread bad news faster and further than any mainstream media channel.” However, as Julie pointed out, “it can also provide the powerful reassurance of a credible firsthand experience from the affected area, saying, 'we are here and we are fine.' This is vital to limiting impact on visitation."

Social media is impacting our perception of travel and tourism. It affects the way we choose destinations, the way we plan vacations, the things we do and of course the way we share our experiences. This year, for the first time, social media is providing us with data that can clearly show the impact of a terrorist attack on a destination’s image and appeal. Mabrian has developed a platform that uses social big data to accurately monitor international traveler sentiment toward a destination in real time. Hugo Sánchez, COO of Mabrian, illustrated the value of this data with the example of global social media response to the Paris attack in November 2015. “We analyzed the evolution of our PSindex in order to understand how the destination was recovering after the attacks. And what we saw was that it took Paris more than three months to achieve degrees of security perceived similar to those prior to the events. But the interesting thing was how different source markets had very different recovery patterns. The US market took way longer to recover than, say, the UK or other European countries. So that was a very clear way of measuring source market resilience. We then crosschecked our results with booking cancelations coming from GDS data, and we found the exact same pattern with US travelers still canceling their flights to Paris long after the events, whereas Spanish and Italian travelers only had a sudden spike of cancelations during the week immediately following the attack." By understanding the sentiment of different source markets during a perceived or real safety threat, destinations can design effective recovery strategies for one market at a time. Mabrian is also able to use geo-tagging analytics to understand the changes in tourism behavior as a reaction to a perceived threat. This data can be of great use to DMOs when minimizing the impact of a crisis, as they will know which types of product segment will be most affected and thus be able to propose and promote alternatives. In the case of Paris, tourists moved away from nightlife, shopping and theme parks and instead enjoyed culture, monuments and outdoor activities.

So now, with research and big data analytics, destinations have more facts at their fingertips than ever before and they can better understand the impact of perceptions of safety on each source market. DMOs are now in a position to make informed strategic marketing decisions that can limit the impact of safety concerns about their destination. However, as Don Welsh, CEO, Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI), pointed out, “Even with the facts in your hands, it is often difficult for destination marketers to convince stakeholders and politicians to take the right action at the right time." Don’s comment touched on the dilemma often faced by DMOs: when perceptions of safety are impacting a destination’s tourism industry, should the DMO take action to explicitly reassure tourists in their marketing messages, or should they make like an ostrich and “keep calm and carry on?" Again, the answer can now be found in insights and research into the real perception of travelers and the impact this is having on decisions to travel. Carlos Vogeler gave the example of the notoriously bold and successful campaign for Colombia. Research and consumer surveys showed that years after drugs-related violence and guerrilla warfare ceased to pose any risk to international tourists, Colombia was still universally considered a high-risk destination. That was the reality, and fear was the emotion that was preventing any other emotional connection between market and destination. There was no point in telling international travelers how beautiful Colombia is until the erroneous perception of security was addressed. So, in an unprecedented show of political bravado and candid transparency, Colombia took the bull by the horns with the slogan “Colombia: the only risk is that you’ll want to stay."

In contrast, Don Welsh shared the experience of Chicago, where I for one was surprised to discover that in one particularly violent weekend, a few years ago, more people were injured or killed by firearms than in the terrorist attack on Paris. In this case, the DMO opted against a reassurance campaign and instead focused on communicating only the reasons to go, implying safety in images but not explicitly mentioning it in their messages.

At this point in the panel discussion there was invaluable audience participation from Prof. Ephraim Kamuntu, Minister of Tourism of Uganda and from Belise Kariza, Chief Tourism Officer of the Rwanda Development Board, who both highlighted the significant differences in recovery rates for African destinations compared to any other continent in the world. “You say that it took months for New York or Paris to be perceived as safe after terrorism attacks. The Rwandan civil war ended 20 years ago. We are now the safest tourist destination in Africa, and yet western travelers still today perceive us as the media portrayed us 20 years ago." The comment struck a cord with the panel and the audience because, if we are totally honest, we had to recognize that this year everyone at WTM is concerned about the impact of safety on tourism because it is currently impacting the tourism industry in Europe and America, regions that are home to many of the world’s affluent travelers, many of the world’s media and much of the world’s economy. Where there is ignorance, there will be inequality, and the main source markets for global tourism are at best uninformed and often misinformed of the reality of African countries. The panel had mentioned the effect of the media on perception of safety after attacks in Europe or America, but our colleagues present from Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda reminded us that in Africa, the global media is activated to warn travelers about a safety risk, but the resolution of the problem is rarely considered newsworthy. It is true that, despite the size and diversity of the African continent, any local issues and negative perceptions impact tourism to the whole continent and changing these perceptions is a painfully slow process.

I like to think that there is a silver lining to every dark cloud even when the cloud is of smoke from an explosion. So, as moderator, I ended the panel discussion on an optimistic note:

  1. Perceptions of safety are clearly impacting global tourism, but trips are being changed - not canceled.
  2. Research and data analytics now allow us to monitor and measure tourists’ perceptions of the safety of our destinations in real time and with more accuracy than ever before.
  3. By understanding what traveler perceptions are we can start to build strategies to influence them.    

And, YES, it is safe to travel.

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