Analysis: Extreme weather and the travel industry

Extreme weather events are a growing hazard, with costs to the industry that extend beyond the immediate safety concerns. Ian Taylor reports

The North Atlantic hurricane season began quietly on June 1, but this peace may not continue.

Experts warn there is a 65% probability of more hurricanes than normal and forecast six to nine between now and October, of which five could equal or surpass the force of ­Hurricane Katrina. An average season has two storms of that magnitude.

Katrina devastated New ­Orleans in August 2005, ­leaving 1,800 dead, the city under-water and the US looking like a developing country.

Two months later Hurricane Wilma smashed through the ­resort of Cancun in Mexico. The death toll of 22 was relatively low, but the storm set several records for intensity. Tour operators had to cancel flights and redirect clients while the Foreign Office rescued an aircraft-load of independent travellers.

Gathering storms

The number and intensity of hurricanes has increased since 1995. The frequency may be mostly due to a natural cycle, but the growing intensity is increasingly understood to be a result of global warming.

Rising temperatures are ­intensifying changes in atmospheric pressure and causing greater evaporation of sea water – meaning higher winds, heavier rainfall and stronger storms.

Hurricanes attract particular attention because they threaten the US and Caribbean. But similar storms, called typhoons or tropical cyclones, hit Southeast Asia, the South Pacific and Australia, northern India and the east coast of Africa – and in 2004 the first hurricane-force storm in the South Atlantic hit Brazil.

Storms are not the only risk posed by extreme weather. Floods, heatwaves and fires – caused by drought and fanned by high winds – are increasing in frequency. Twice as much rain in the British winter now falls in intense downpours as 40 years ago. A heatwave in Europe in 2003 caused 35,000 deaths, and the area of the world at risk of drought has doubled since the 1970s.

The head of the World ­Meteorological Organization, Michel Jarraud, warned last year: “Disturbances to the global climate system are ­everywhere… hurricanes, floods and persistent droughts.”

Travellers at risk

The consequences for tourism, Jarraud said, will be: “Increased risks: variations in rainfall, wind and temperatures, sea-level rise, reduced snowfall, increased frequency of heatwaves.”

A report on climate change by leading insurance house Lloyd’s concludes: “The insurance industry should start planning for a higher level of losses as the severity and frequency of weather events increase.”

So the risk of extreme weather is growing, a trend ­reflected in the fact that crisis management has become a key issue for major travel companies.

Federation of Tour ­Operators director-general Andy Cooper says: “There has been a dramatic change in the number of incidents requiring a collective industry response in recent years.”

Obviously, an instant reaction is needed when those in a destination are at risk and tour operators and airlines must decide whether to cancel outbound flights and direct clients elsewhere.

The issues in resort are immediate – is everyone accounted for and safe? Have they food and water? Can they be relocated? How and when can they be repatriated? How and when is information provided – to clients, to their families, to the media?

Other issues kick in as a destination seeks to recover. When is it safe to go back and will holidaymakers want to go? Is the infrastructure adequate? Are hotels restored? Has the workforce returned?

Learning from disasters

The hurricane that devastated New Orleans provided a lesson in how not to react. When the levees broke, 80% of New Orleans was flooded and 100,000 people trapped – 20,000 of them in the city’s Superdome. City authorities had ordered evacuation without providing transport – 70% of the city’s nursing homes were not cleared.

The subsequent storm that hit Cancun was handled incomparably better. But the Foreign Office drew flak for laying on a flight to Dallas for stranded holidaymakers, with tour operators pointing out the unfairness of a system that requires the trade to take care of its clients while the government looks after everyone else.

David Fitton, head of the Foreign Office’s consulate crisis group at the time, said: “If there is a threat to safety we have to do something. We took the view these were exceptional circumstances. But we did not fly people home – they had to take some responsibility.”

He added: “We are expected to do more each time [something happens]. However, tourists have a responsibility. If they want everything covered they should take a package holiday. If they want to take risks, they have other options. We encourage people to take out travel insurance.”

The Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated parts of Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and southern India at Christmas 2004 was not caused by ­extreme weather, but the scale of the crisis posed probably the biggest challenge for the ­industry to date.

“There is huge variation in the extent of crisis planning in the industry. But if you have no plan, you will be in trouble”

More than 12,000 UK travellers were in the region when the tsunami struck, 6,500 of them customers of FTO members. In the immediate aftermath, a volunteer helpline set up by the Foreign Office and police ­handled 17,000 calls an hour.

FTO members were able to trace most clients quickly and Fitton subsequently told an ­industry seminar: “I can’t ­emphasise how grateful we are to the travel industry for what it did in Sri Lanka and Thailand.”

Cooper drew a number of lessons from the experience, of which keeping clear records and issuing clear messages were top of his list.

“Update contact lists and make sure you know where people are,” he advises. “Maintain out-of-hours contacts – these are vital. Ensure a consistent approach by all parties. Limit the chain of communications and ensure messages are understood.

“Ring-fence crisis management from day-to-day running of the business and be aware there may be different policies within subsidiaries of a group.”

If that sounds like a lot to think about in advance of a ­crisis, Cooper warns: “There is huge variation in the extent of crisis planning in the industry. But if you have no plan, you will be in trouble.”

ABTA will host a seminar on extreme weather on July 8 with hurricane expert Norman Lynagh among the speakers

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