Around the world, the tourism sector is vulnerable to diverse risks requiring crisis management. The consequences of some crises can be profound for destinations.
As we all know, the travel and tourism sector is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. 62-million tourists visited Africa in 2017. The UN World Tourism Organisation predicts that by 2030 the number of international arrivals in Africa is will grow to 134-million; with 29-million landing in Southern Africa, and a significant number of those visiting Cape Town.
Crises include natural disasters like drought, storms, fire and floods, outbreaks of disease, man-made conflict and terrorism, and economic crises. Wherever you are in the world – whether you are an individual tourism practitioner hoping to mitigate business reputation risk, or a member of a task team responsible for coordinating disaster response – everyone operating in this sector must accept that crises are part of the landscape. And that their responsibility to keep visitors and stakeholders safe obligates them to prepare for these crises well in advance.
Since 2000, I have worked with South African and international clients in tourism and allied fields who build crisis planning into their operations. I also get called in by ad hoc clients who find themselves unprepared when a crisis befalls them. While crisis management specialists can help in both cases, the very best way to stay ahead of a crisis is to be ready for it.
This requires planning for the full crisis life-cycle: before, during and after the event. A key part of the planning process is formulating protocols for crisis communications and establishing a network for collaboration well before a crisis hits.
In a survey on crisis management undertaken by Deloitte in 2016, this lack of planning is referred to as a “vulnerability gap”, which identifies the difference between there being an awareness of potential threats and actually having a plan in place well in advance that translates into decisive action to address these threats. This vulnerability gap leads to poor or non-existent collaboration, and often ineffective and incorrect communication. When this is the case for a destination, the damage a crisis can cause to its image and reputation may have significantly longer-lasting effects than the damage caused by the crisis itself.
South Africans are enormously resilient, and when we work together, we are world class and unbeatable. When fires raged across the Cape Peninsula three days before the 2015 Cape Town Cycle Tour – which contributes significantly to the Western Cape’s economy – my team and the organisers were able to follow a set protocol to ensure that cyclists’ lives were never in danger, and that the reputation of the event and most importantly the City was safe-guarded. Despite a vastly curtailed route, the Cape Town Cycle Tour remained the largest timed cycle race in the world that year.
Pre-planning, outstanding collaboration between the organisers, all relevant authorities, local and provincial government, sponsors … and aligned, consistent communication.
Similarly, this year when Capetonians questioned the wisdom of hosting events like the Cycle Tour during a water crisis, we were able to quickly respond to these perceptions. The work had been done a year previously to make sure the event would be 100% water-neutral. Communications completely reversed the prevailing sentiment, and even heightened the event’s reputation.
Looking at destination crisis management, we would want to see regional co-ordination and collaboration between tourism operators, associations, cities, regions and countries, and we do, often. But, as I said when invited to speak at this year’s Tourism Indaba on Africa’s crisis readiness, when a crisis hits, there is often an unfortunate pull-back by cities, regions, or countries near the affected area, as well as ineffective communication coming out of the crisis arena itself.
In that speech I was addressing the reaction of other Indian Ocean Islands’ response to the pneumonic plague outbreak in Madagascar, a withdrawal of support that had Taleb Rifai, former Secretary General of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, commenting: “Collaboration among all countries in crisis situations is critical, as is the importance of co-operation that reinforces prevention without creating unnecessary travel bans, which have the effect of penalising a country in crisis twice.”
The same goes for regions, entities and operators within the same country. One region’s crisis is a crisis for the whole nation, and stakeholders across the country should pull together so that the region experiencing the event is not “penalised twice”.
Crises have a life span and it is much harder to change negative perceptions down the line. Perception affects the economies of entire regions – advance planning and collaboration agreements must be in place long before any crisis hits, and must be ongoing. The initial response to a crisis will shape its fate, with the first three days a critical determinant of where you will end up.
The South African government does not yet place enough emphasis on tourism – this is one of the reasons given, along with crime and sustainability, for South Africa slipping in the latest World Economic Forum Tourism and Travel ranking.
And we saw the result of this during the Cape Town water crisis. Initially there was pull back rather than collaboration. I have it on good authority that SA Tourism and Brand SA were implored to step up and support the city’s need to address the crisis as a national one. Thank goodness then-Deputy President Ramaphosa heard the pleas and subsequently translated the water crisis into a threat to national economic and social stability.
The right messages are going out now, but imagine if every tourism entity, every spokesperson, every operator in the country had put out that messaging in November, December, and especially in the last six months. Instead of apocalyptic Day Zero echoes around the world, our potential visitors and investors would have heard that a water crisis like this is climate-change related and politically, economically and geographically agnostic. There are more than 100 other cities around the world facing the same crisis. The outcome today is that we, here in Cape Town, South Africa, have become the leading centre of knowledge on water-crisis management and recovery. This because we have worked together these past few months and are coming through this crisis as a stronger, more sustainable and united, globally admired destination.
We’ve learnt our lessons around the water crisis, but we must do the same thing, and do it faster, around perceptions of crime, health and safety levels in this city and this country. Going back to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index. South Africa is ranked 53 out of 136 economies – but 120th for Safety and Security and 113th for Health and Hygiene. The report says that “Fears of terrorism and an increased sense of insecurity related to crime” make tourists worried about travelling in the country.
There are scary travel advisories being issued by many countries – all are influencing travellers’ perceptions of our city, and the country at large. Combined with the water crisis, these have turned potential visitors’ eyes to different destinations, and we’re seeing a drop-off in forward bookings.
This is clearly a national issue. As I’ve highlighted before, we need to DO what is required, and we need to SPEAK with one clear voice, nationally.
Excerpt from the speech by Wendy Masters of The Phoenix Partnership to Cape Town’s Joint Associated Members Meeting Session (JAMMS) on 21 June 2018.