Airlines and international airports in Europe are spluttering back to life after a week in which a difficult to pronounce and spell Icelandic volcano, Eyjafallajokull spewed ash into the atmosphere and disrupted air transport over much of Europe.
Although flights are resuming it’s too early to say that this event has reached its conclusion or that tourism industry professionals can sit back and hope it will never happen again.
The task of calculating the full cost of this crisis will be difficult. Apart from the direct cost to airlines for arising from lost revenue arising from cancelled flights, passenger compensation and a host to other costs, no sector of the tourism industry has been unaffected. In Northern Europe Events, meetings, hotels, tours, attractions will all have incurred costs due to cancellations, reduced numbers of tourist visitations. The insurance industry will be spending many millions of dollars compensating those travellers who were covered and millions of travellers have incurred significant personal expenses.
There have been some winners during the “volcanic ash crisis”. Cruise and ferry operators, coach operators, car rental firms and the railways have experienced a surge in business and a few lucky cab drivers were able to benefit from wealthy individuals who were prepared to pay premium prices to be driven long distances. Some hotels and resorts found that tourists extended their stays because they were unable to return to their home countries.
Stopover points for long haul travellers to and from Europe such as Hong Kong, Dubai, Bangkok and Singapore found themselves under strain over the week as Europe bound passengers were forced to extend their stays.
The crisis also demonstrated the considerable extent to which the world has become dependent on air freight for a wide range of merchandise.
The airline industry and airport authorities had no alternative but to respond with caution to the volcanic ash plumes. When faced with a choice between imposing inconvenience on air passengers and gambling with their lives the airline industry and regulatory authorities made the only choice they could. Many observers will argue whether regulatory authorities, airlines and airports were overly zealous in their imposition of flight bans but the unprecedented nature of the Eyjasfallajokull eruption favoured caution.
There is no doubt that the unusual nature of this crisis caught many people in the tourism industry wrong footed. The UNWTO and the WTTC were among many leading tourism organisations which took some time craft a response to this unusual crisis affecting tourism.
The international media and the airlines tended to take a leading role in disseminating information related to the volcanic ash crisis and there was and still is some confusion surrounding the impact of the eruption on air services.
The UNWTO’s call for overriding concern for travellers’ rights and giving them a choice between accepting compensation or re-routing is ethically sound but it begs the question of who is responsible for the funding. One issue of concern was that many airline travellers who were affected by the found that alternative forms of transport sometimes charged what we may charitably refer to as “market driven prices” for their services.
Now that the tourism industry has come to terms with its first major volcanic ash crisis how do we minimise the impact of future events? Nobody wishes for a repeat of this sort of phenomena but the key essential of risk and crisis management is preparedness. The following points represent some approaches the tourism industry may wish to consider at global and national leadership level.
• A common agreed definition of a volcanic ash emergency.
• Emergency transferability of travel documents between various modes of transport once an emergency has been declared.
• Clarification of cancellation and changed arrangements policies as it applies to the full gamut of tourism and hospitality services which are affected by a natural event.
• Establishment of a widely agreed set of parameters for travel insurance coverage.
• Decisions on whether national governments or an international emergency fund may compensate those businesses worst affected by cancellation of transport and travel services.
• Central tourism information and update facility and development of a stronger connection with the global media.
• Establishing minimal obligations of tourism service providers and the rights of travellers in the event of travellers delayed or stranded by an event of nature beyond the control of travel services providers.
• Enhanced cooperation between major global travel and tourism organisations.
The UNWTO’s Tourism, Emergency Response Network is theoretically the right direction to proceed but there is a need to be able to mobilise a coordinated tourism industry from the outset of an emergency.
Clearly the tourism industry overall could learn from the airline industry which through ICAO (international Civil Aviation Organisation) did have a contingency plan for dealing with volcanic ash plumes. The industry will also benefit by working more closely with experts not only vulcanology but in other fields where natural phenomena can impact on tourism.
None of the above proposals are any guarantee that any future volcanic ash crises will be painless but there should be little debate that overall, the world’s tourism industry was under-prepared to cope with Iceland’s unwelcome volcanic export.
The author is Senior Lecture in Tourism at the University of Technology-Sydney