Africa tourism industry slams US travel alerts

Rowan Philp

San Jose, California - Africa’s tourism industry has reacted with dismay to the “worldwide” travel alert by the US State Department, and warns of needless lost revenue for established destinations that have a low risk for terrorism.

This follows key findings in a global survey How Global Voices Shape Travel Choices, which shows that 55% of travellers trust government alerts above all other sources when deciding on destination safety.

In an opinion piece to ETN Global Travel News this week, Jeff Chatterton, owner of global crisis communications consultancy Checkmate Public Affairs, slammed the alert as “completely useless”, “not location specific”, and unfair to countries with reduced threats of terrorist activity.

David Frost, CEO of the Southern African Tourism Services Association, said blanket alerts are “never helpful” – both to travellers and to established African destinations. Frost endorsed Chatterton’s concerns.

In an almost unprecedented global alert following the attacks in Paris and Mali as well as the bombing of a Russian passenger jet in Egypt, the US State Department warned all US citizens against “possible risks of travel” worldwide.

It stated that “current information" suggests terrorist groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda and Boko Haram "continue to plan terrorist attacks in multiple regions”, and that the alert would remain in place until February 24 2016.

The US rarely issued worldwide alerts before 2011, but has issued four since.

Last year, Nigel Vere Nicoll – CEO of the African Travel & Tourism Association (Atta) – was asked by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office to help “get all Brits out of Mali”, following a specific non-essential travel warning on terrorist kidnappings in that country.

'Frankly ridiculous'

“And we did get them out,” said Vere Nicoll. “As an industry, we are generally not keen on travel advisories, but we do respect them, and we do assist. But they need to be specific, not blanket. US alerts tend to be dramatic and to over-generalise, but many African destinations will be among those needlessly harmed by this blanket alert, which is frankly ridiculous.”

The Global Voices study was based on a comprehensive online survey of more than 2 100 American, European and Rest of World leisure travellers during the month of October 2015. It was fielded with Travelzoo, which has 28 million active members in its travel discovery and deal delivery network worldwide.

The survey reveals that – as their decision-making source of information on travel safety - travellers trust their governments the most by far (55%), compared to 34% who rely on family and friends, and a surprisingly high 33% who trust the judgement of travel writers.

Significantly, leisure tourists place very little trust in professional travel industry sources when it comes to safety, with only 26% trusting travel agent recommendations, and only 10% having faith in the assessments of airlines.

Country-specific data from the study shows that British travellers are most reliant on government travel alerts to inform their safety calculations at over 63%, while US travellers are slightly less reliant on state warnings and more reliant on travel writers’ views.

Meanwhile, less than half of German travellers rely on state travel advisories, while more than a third of Germans trust “travel deal sources, such as Travelzoo” in assessing safety.

Vere Nicoll said the Global Voices study confirmed trends among Atta’s 600 travel industry members, in which the UK Foreign Office advisories were deemed highly credible.

“The survey reflects what we see - UK travel advisories are the most heeded, and they have implications for the insurance industry, for operators, for everyone,” said Vere Nicoll.

“They can be devastating from a tourism standpoint – tourism to Kenya’s coastal resorts virtually came to a halt after the Foreign Office issued a non-essential travel advisory on Kenya last year.

“But at least they are relatively specific. Worldwide alerts like this one from the US are counter-productive, and will affect our industry very badly – and, in my view, they promote the goals of the people who perpetrate the problem,” said Vere Nicoll.

“Everyone knows terrorism is a widespread problem, but they are basically saying that nowhere is safe – from St Barts to Botswana – which is ridiculous.”

Africa’s most competitive tourist destinations are South Africa, Mauritius and the Seychelles, with Botswana best positioned for rapid growth, according to the 2015 Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report. Yet none of these nations has experienced international terrorism in recent years.