With so much misinformation and misplaced fear about the coronavirus outbreak, Alastair Donnelly, co-founder and director of Inside Travel Group, believes travel professionals have a vital role to play.
“Working in the travel industry we are well used to the next big crisis being just around the corner. In the 20 years since we established Inside Travel Group (InsideJapan Tours as it was back in 2000), we’ve faced down 9-11, SARS, Swine Flu and the Tsunami in Japan. And those are just the major world events. I am sure not a day goes by when a travel industry professional doesn’t need to handle a challenging situation happening somewhere in the world. And that is why we are such resourceful and resilient people. If you want someone you can rely on in a crisis, choose a travel industry pro!
When I came into work on 2nd January, I certainly wasn’t expecting that less than a month later I’d be facing one of the most challenging times of my career. But the Novel coronoavirus, or Covid-19 as it has now been officially named, is hitting the travel industry hard and as an Asia specialist, we are certainly no exception to that.
The biggest challenge we all face can be the misinformation that surrounds crisis events. I was amused to be told by the owner of the barista truck outside our offices that he had heard the source was bat stew! Not true of course. But with bats being known to harbor coronaviruses, and being reported as having potentially passed this on to other animals who may have been the source, it is easy to see how stereotypes of Chinese eating habits and a half-read story on the internet can come together to create ‘bat flu’.
Perhaps more damaging has been the misinterpretation of official government advice. At Inside Travel Group we always take our lead from government sources. This provides a single point of reference from which to make policy and to which we can refer clients. As of 14th February no government anywhere in the world has issued a travel advisory for anywhere other than China. There have been very low numbers of cases outside of China and governments across the region have taken extensive measures to reduce the spread of the infection. However, this doesn’t stop misinformation from seeping out into the mainstream.
A particularly damaging example of this was sent to us by a client who snapped a poster from their local GP Surgery stating that all individuals returning from any of Thailand, Japan, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia or Macau should stay indoors and avoid contact with others even if they do not have symptoms. This poster has a Public Health England logo on but is NOT an official poster nor is it in line with their official advice which had the important text ‘…and is experiencing cough or fever or shortness of breath’. The meaning is very different and understandably the poster our client saw made them anxious about their upcoming trip to Japan. We have had parents saying that some schools won’t allow students to return to school for 14 days after returning from Asia. And even some employers implementing similar policies. Certainly makes for a difficult trading environment!
What we always try to remember is that in these circumstances, we are not powerless. Yes, we can’t halt the virus (unless any of my team have special powers of which I am not aware!). But we can make sure we are leading the conversation for our clients, providing regular updates and being open and transparent about our policies and how we manage an uncertain situation such as this.
Last weekend we added, to both our websites, dedicated pages about the coronavirus and linked them, prominently, from the home page (see links below). We have been communicating regularly with our bookers, letting them know the latest and letting them know what we will do if the situation worsens. We also added a web page about how we handle government travel advisories so our clients and trade partners have this information and can feel reassured.
It’s not a good time for the travel industry, but this crisis will pass and when we look back, I have no doubt I will be incredibly proud of how we pulled together to handle this. Us travel industry pros are indeed a resilient bunch, and it is that strength of character and passion for what we do that, in my opinion, makes travel the best industry in the world to work in.”