Return to Safety Standards in Tourism Services
COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus the importance of health and safety standards across all service industries, especially international tourism. The protection of visitors and the delivery of quality service are now essential for destinations to be competitive and to attract tourists in the New Normal.[i]
In the context of COVID-19, the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) recently released its International Code for the Protection of Tourists[ii] while the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) took a very operational approach with its ‘Safe Travels’: Global Protocols & Stamp for the New Normal.[iii] Both groups have highlighted the importance of clear minimum international standards for the tourism industry.
The WTTC approach divides global protocols into four pillars:
- Promoting Operational & Staff Preparedness
- Delivering a Safe Experience
- Rebuilding Trust & Confidence
- Implementing Enabling Policies
The WTTC protocols have been applied to a range of tourism activities and settings, such as: Adventure Tourism, Hospitality, Tour Operators, Attractions, Convention Centres, Meetings and Events, and considerations of Insurance.
Transition from COVID-19
While COVID-19 will remain a priority issue for tourism, especially around travel insurance and the conditions imposed on movement across borders, there are several other considerations for visitor health and safety standards arising from the extended period of lockdowns.
The second area of consideration is the readiness of tour operators to recommence business after a long period of inactivity. This includes service and maintenance of plant and equipment, reactivating insurance policies and tourism licenses, and importantly staff training and accreditation at a time when thousands of staff members have been stood down or left the industry during COVID-19 lockdowns.[i] The skills shortage has critical implications for standards in customer care.
Thirdly, COVID-19 has raised consumer expectations about health and safety, to the extent, it can be argued, that there is no returning to lax standards.[ii] The hospitality sector is a good example, where some branded hotel chains partnered with medical and cleaning experts to develop and accredit their hygiene practices. Third-party assessors were then engaged to provide staff training and property certification. This intense focus on COVID-19 protection through standards was also widespread across all tourism sectors,[iii] leaving a lasting legacy of health and safety consciousness.
Industry standards are generally not legally binding on tourism operators, though they are often part of licensing, accreditation, or industry memberships. Standards can be used in legal proceedings as a guide or measure of acceptable local practice[i] and form the basis of legally enforceable regulations [ii]under legislation. A range of standards are available to assist tourism operators, especially from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which for adventure tourism, for example, states:
A provider can use this International Standard for the following:
- a) to enhance safety performance;
- b) to meet expectations for participant and staff safety;
- c) to demonstrate safe practice;
- d) to support compliance with applicable legal requirements.[iii]
While international standards are available, there is a long history in English travel law, and in this journal, about the predominant role of local standards in litigation claims. As Mr. Justice Marcus Smith recently noted in TUI UK Limited v Lynn Morgan:
… the court will regard the standards prevailing in the place of performance as “a very important signpost” in determining the content of the obligation.[i]
That is, an obligation for the tourism operator to exercise reasonable skill and care in the delivery of services. While local standards for physical structures at a destination (glass doors, lifts, and steps) may continue to be a legal challenge for international visitors, in outdoor and adventure tourism services one response to borders reopening after COVID may be an increased willingness for operators to commit to standards that are provided by peak industry groups.[ii] This follows from the consensus that tourism recovery will depend on developing and maintaining trust so that consumers will have confidence in tourism services and suppliers.
Examples in adventure tourism include the Australian Adventure Activity Standard and associated Good Practice Guides,[iii] the Adventure Travel Guide Standard,[iv] and the Activity Safety Guidelines for Adventure Activities,[v] all of which are voluntary standards. To be really effective, however, standards need to be incorporated into enforceable regulations.
In New Zealand, for example, operators must be registered under the Adventure Activities Regulations to offer adventure activities to participants.[vi] They must also undergo safety audits every three years at an average cost of $4000-$5000 to maintain their registration. During the COVID pandemic industry interest-free loans were made available to assist operators with the costs of these mandatory audits.[vii]
In response to the Whakaari/White Island volcanic eruption on 9 December 2019, where 22 people died and 25 others were severely injured, the New Zealand Government has undertaken a targeted review of their Adventure Activities Regulations.[viii] The review found that the regulatory regime has improved safety standards overall and that the legislative framework is working as intended. However, currently the regulatory regime does not explicitly address the risks that come from natural hazards like rockfalls, water surges, flooding, eruptions, and avalanches. It recommended that operators should be assisted to improve their safety management systems for natural hazards through the development of guidance materials, including criteria for cancelling an event or activity based on real-time risk assessment.
The review also found that stakeholders considered the on-site safety audits required under the scheme to be the main mechanism to improve operator’s safety systems. Indeed, operators suggested that the minimum number of on-site safety audits be increased, including random on-site inspections.
Standards in the New Normal
The New Zealand experience provides a useful template for tourism standards in the New Normal, suggesting that some form of licensing and regulation of tourism operator safety systems is probably necessary at a destination to ensure the delivery of quality services. This does not have to be heavy-handed regulation, but rather formal monitoring and assistance for operators to discharge their duties of care.
During COVID-19 there have been huge advances in the use of the internet and remote technologies for health and safety innovation. Monitoring for many tourism standards can be done remotely, with the added dimension of on-site audits and inspections providing additional quality assurance. This model is currently used by some commercial providers,[i] and was successfully delivered to industry members by the Federation of Tour Operators in 2007 through detailed health and safety on-site auditing tools and checklists. Of course, on-site audits and inspections are expensive, so a hybrid model is a practical solution.
Returning to how operators come back from an extended period of lockdowns, given the appetite of travellers for adventure tourism and visiting the great outdoors,[ii] ensuring health and safety standards are met in the following areas is particularly important:
- Tourist operator licenses (current) and ideally operator registration
- Vehicle and equipment licenses; service and maintenance schedules
- Public liability and other relevant insurance policies in place
- A documented safety management plan specific to the operation
- Staff training and qualifications (current) relevant to the activity or site
- Customer safety/instructions, including detailed safety briefings
- Customer amenities (access to toilets, hand washing, shelter)
- COVID-19 and general infectious disease protection measures based on global standards and compliant with destination Health Department directions
- First aid kits with specified contents; staff trained in first aid and CPR
- Emergency equipment, especially for remote area activities
- Mobile communications
- Accident/incident recording systems
- Annual inspection, audit, and compliance mechanisms
Maintaining currency in first aid and CPR requires refresher courses (usually every year for CPR and every three years for first aid) – most guiding programmes require first aid as one of their standards.[i]
As previously noted, tourist operators may also need to ensure that their customers are fit to travel and to engage in strenuous outdoor activities. This may involve either formal (e.g., scuba diving)[i] or informal (e.g., whale watching)[ii] screening measures pre departure. Where regulations are in place there is absolute clarity about health and safety standards for tourist operators.[i] This in turn will foster trust and confidence in the services provided.
As international borders reopen a recent Tripadvisor report,[ii] with 10,000 respondents across five countries, provides some interesting future insights into standards. The report found that personal safety remains a concern and that the majority of travellers agree cleanliness measures of a hospitality business will be an important factor in their travel decision making next year, even after COVID-19 cases have dropped worldwide. Importantly, most travellers in the five countries surveyed don’t want to see hotels and restaurants go back to pre-pandemic health and safety policies after outbreaks are behind us.
Dr Jeff Wilks is an Australian psychologist and lawyer specializing in tourist health, safety, and wellbeing
He also serves as an Adjunct Professor in tourism at Griffith University
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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