The global tourism industry continues to respond to Iceland’s volcanic eruption and the unprecedented disruption to European and global air travel. Most of the world’s travel industry has found itself either under-prepared or completely unprepared to deal with the challenge being belched into the atmosphere by Eyjafjallkokull. To its credit, the UN International Civil Aviation Organisation is one of the few industry bodies with a contingency plan for volcanic ash in a document initially released in 2005 and updated in September 2009. Airlines have largely taken their cue for the ICAO. If non-airline tourism industry professionals are seeking guidance from the UN World Tourism Organisation they would find that the both the www.sos.travel site and TERN (Tourism Emergency Response Network) will direct them to news agencies such as CNN. The UNWTO has maintained a curious silence on an event which has widespread implications for all sectors of the global travel industry. If long haul travellers cannot fly to Europe or leave Europe, how does this affect their tour programs, hotels stays, other transport arrangements and their insurance coverage?
There is no doubt that ash cloud generated by Iceland’s volcanic eruption falls outside the range of risks which most of the tourism industry factors into its risk and crisis management toolkit. However the industry has no choice but to learn from this situation and quickly adapt. In my previous article for ETN on this topic it was acknowledged that airlines have responded and continue to respond to the crisis with admirable flexibility and professionalism despite the fact than the uncertain duration of the volcanic ash clouds is costing the airline industry an estimated US$300 million per day. The hidden costs for the millions of tourists whose travel arrangements been disrupted by the Icelandic volcano is now mounting into billions of dollars.
There has been considerable publicity given to airlines, waiving cancellation and date change restrictions but there has been less information about the response of hoteliers, tour operators, convention and event organisers and other tourism and hospitality principals to the disruption caused to travellers by Iceland’s volcanic cloud.
Within Europe, during the past few days, land and sea transport providers have been able to absorb a significant and sudden surge in demand from travellers unable to fly. This begs the question of short-term emergency transferability of airline and ground transport tickets. However it also opens a long-term opportunity for future transport integration. All students of crisis management understand that the word ‘crisis’ encapsulates problem and opportunity.
One opportunity arising from the Eyjafjallajokull eruption is for airlines to seriously consider horizontal integration into other forms of land or sea transport. Virgin owns airline and rail services in the UK. Easy Jet owns a budget cruise line, Easy Cruises. Major airlines which have a stake in coach, ferry, rail, car rental or cruise airlines have the potential benefit from the diversification into alternative transport profit centres sharing a common brand. Integrated transport enterprises will serve the interests of the carriers and their passengers during normal business conditions and during emergencies. The concept of horizontal integration does not infer or oblige full ownership of land and sea transport services, In some countries, governments choose to exercise control over rail services but if they opt for even partial privatisation, airlines may choose to become a stakeholder.
Iceland’s volcanic eruption is a jolting wake-up call for tourism professionals all over the world. It has certainly removed any sense of complacency which may have existed among travel professionals that we had thought of almost every solution to every risk.
Airlines represent the only sector of the tourism industry with a contingency plan for volcanic ash plumes, responding to the Icelandic volcanic eruption calmly and professionally. By contrast, there is a high degree of confusion over the response of other travel industry sectors to a threat they do not understand.
The volcanic clouds blanketing Europe has forced much of the world’s travel industry to its knees and has panicked millions of the travelling public. No-one knows what is going to happen to the volcano in Iceland. Only the airlines had a contingency plan for this kind of event. In a mutually interdependent industry responding to a common threat, logic requires total cooperation and preparedness within the entire tourism industry to restore confidence in any future catastrophic situation.