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Tourism Crisis Management as Business Continuity Plan 2

Discussed in the previous article were the importance of tourism crisis management and protection from disaster. This article further discusses the characteristics of tourism crisis management in comparison with crisis management in general, and some of the common challenges and keys to design and implement tourism crisis management plan.

Masato Takamatsu

Masato Takamatsu Managing Director & Chief Research Officer, Head of Tourism Crisis Management Consulting

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3. The nature and characteristics of tourism crisis management

(1)Tourism crisis management deals with tourists and travelers

There is a major difference between tourism crisis management plan and disaster prevention plan designed by local government. A local disaster prevention plan is designed mainly to protect local residents and their properties from disasters, while a tourism crisis management plan is primarily designed to protect and rescue visitors in the crisis and to support the recovery of tourism industry in the area.

The most distinctive difference between local residents and travelers and tourists who happened to be visiting the area is familiarity with the area. Visitors are hardly aware what they should do and where to go to protect themselves in an emergency situation.

For example, the residents of a community which has experienced tsunami in the past know that a tsunami follows after a major earthquake hit the area, and that they should immediately evacuate to the place with high elevation without hesitation. Most of the visitors to the area do not imagine that a tsunami will follow after the earthquake in the first place. Even if the local people tell them that a tsunami will shortly hit the community and they should immediately evacuate, the visitors may not understand how soon the tsunami will come and how fast tsunami runs. They have no idea where they should go to escape from tsunami when they are urged to evacuate.

An American woman was working as an English teacher at one of the elementary schools in a local community in Northern Japan. When the earthquake hit the town, she did a perfect job as a teacher; evacuated all the children in her class and comforted them trembling in fear. But after she checked everyone in the class was safe and accounted for, she suddenly ran her bike to her apartment. Halfway to her house she was caught in the tsunami and was drowned to death. She was told that a tsunami was likely to come in a minute and she should evacuate as soon as possible. She had a good command of Japanese and she knew the Japanese word ‘tsunami’, but unfortunately she did not know how large and destructive tsunami could be in this area. She obviously tried to get some valuables from her apartment before the tsunami arrives.

Even this teacher, who had lived in the community for some time, had good communication with the colleagues and children at school and knew that a tsunami was coming, made a wrong decision on what she should do. How can we expect a first time visitor to make a right decision to protect his/her life from a gigantic tsunami? He/she would probably be at a loss what to do and where to, not know what is going on around him/her. A foreign visitor would not understand the instruction for evacuation yelled in Japanese.

Thus, tourism crisis management plan is expected to focus more on protecting the life of visitors who know little about the local area and have limited access to the local information than residents.

Another major difference between tourism crisis management whose main target is visitors and regional disaster prevention plan for residents is needs for support to send them home. Basically, the residents will remain in the area after the crisis, unless a tsunami or a landslide destroys the local community and they have no choice to leave the region. Whereas the visitors who face a crisis during their trip would want to communicate with their families and friends and return home as soon as possible, once they get out of the most critical situation. Therefore, supporting visitors to return home safely is one of the essential factors of tourism crisis management.

Sending the visitors home after an accident or crisis is not an easy task. Public transportation is unlikely to operate normally. The evacuated visitors may not have time to pick up their personal belongings in their travel bags in the hotel rooms. There are cases where they have to evacuate without wallet, credit cards, ID cards or even passport to survive the immediate danger. In the event of recent earthquake and tsunami, many people lost medicines they have to take regularly. Some of them experienced worsening of their illness and even the danger of their lives. If it were foreign visitor who lost the medicines, a language barrier would have made it more difficult to have new medicine prescribed.

A tourism crisis management plan is designed to ensure the safety of the visitors and support their communication with their families, friends. If foreign visitors run into a crisis and troubled, they need to contact to their embassies in Japan. Supporting them to communicate with their embassies will be highly appreciated and it should be included in the crisis management manual. In case a foreign visitor has lost all the money and credit cards in the crisis, a special arrangement should be made to send them home without cash.

If Japanese travelers are involved into a major accident or a hazard and sending them back to Japan by regular transportation is difficult, a charter flight is dispatched to rescue them. Likewise, if a large number of foreign visitors encounter a major crisis in Japan, the local government needs prepare for receiving a rescue charter flight at a nearby airport from their own country.

(2)Importance of collaboration between private sector and public sector

A disaster prevention plan of a local government generally includes the formation of team of various public agencies and organizations to cope with the hazard as well as the location of the public facilities that are to be used for shelters. But the plan usually does not include the utilizing specific private facilities and collaboration between public sector and private companies and organizations in the event of emergency.

Cooperation and collaboration between private companies and public sector is of a high importance in tourism crisis management. Finding out who live in the devastated area is easy because community people are registered in the resident list. You only need to go through the list to identify who lives where with how many family members. In addition, residents know each other so that it is no trouble finding out who is missing.

Identifying the visitors who were staying at hotels in the community at the outbreak of the disaster, who were on the coach that crashed into an accident, and who was driving a rent-a-car when a tsunami hit the beach road, is nearly impossible without using the booking information provided by the private tourism operators.

High rise hotels and office buildings on the coast are safer than community’s public hall or gymnasium as a shelter against tsunami. Why not, then, write in the tourism crisis management plan, ‘In case a major tsunami warning is issued, immediately evacuate visitors and residents on the coast to fifth floor or higher of the XYZ Hotel’? And local government should prepare a food stock that would feed the several hundred evacuees for a couple of days.

Furthermore, it would benefit both international visitors and destinations receiving them if it is specified which hospitals in the community can receive foreign visitors of what languages. An international visitor in needs of medical care will be taken to the designated medical service facility, both public and private, for immediate care.

(3)Successful tourism crisis management leads to the recovery

The recovery of tourism destination after the crisis largely depends on:

  1. A tourism crisis management plan,
  2. A manual or a handbook based on the plan
  3. Quick and appropriate implementation of the plan: securing safety of the visitors and rescue activities by local private and public tourism sector in the event of crisis and
  4. Timely provision of information from the damaged destination and facilities.

What is done and not done for the visitors at the crisis has a large influence on the reputation of the destination, community and tourism service provider. Today, thanks to the wide spread use of the Internet, visitors who encounter an accident or a crisis can ‘twit’ to the rest of the world what they are experiencing directly from the site of the incident. Warm support and hospitality offered to the visitors in trouble will be communicated through social media and blogs, which lead to upgrading the reputation of the destination. A lack of adequate support and hospitality for visitors will risk a reputation of the destination.

After the crisis, some destinations and tourism service provider immediately take actions to prepare recovery promotion, while some others wait to do so until everything is settled down. The tourism traffic to the former destinations will return much faster than the latter.

Japanese word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters: ‘danger’ and ‘chance’. Destinations where people fully understand the concept of tourism crisis management would make a good use of ‘crisis’ to change it an opportunity to improve the tourism service quality and to redevelop the area into an sustainable destination.

4. Common challenges of tourism crisis management in Japan

Crisis management in tourism is still at a very early stage in Japan. The destinations that are considering to make a tourism crisis management plan or to redesign the existing plan confront common challenges and issues as follows. This can be used as a checklist for your organization’s crisis management review.

(1)Crisis management only deals with limited disasters

A number of local governments, tourism service providers and tourist facilities have a disaster prevention plans, whose scope is limited to fire and earthquake; no specific plans for other type of disasters. The plan may target only the residents of their own communities, but evacuation and protection of the visitors to the community are not included.

It is still better than not having a plan at all, but further consideration and planning is encouraged to cope with other types of crisis and safe evacuation of all the visitors to the area.

(2)Crisis management plan is poorly recognized by the employees

The organization has a complete tourism crisis management plan and manuals. But not all of the staff members know what is written in the manual. Some employees may not know where they can find the plan or the manual or they simply don’t know the existence of the plan and manuals.

(3)Insufficient stock of evacuation tools

In other cases, a crisis management plan and a manual are prepared, but there are not enough number of tools and devices necessary for safe evacuation and first aid kit. A multi-lingual sign boards, for instance, is extremely useful for the destinations and tourism facilities that are visited by a large number of international tourists when employees without language skills can need to evacuate the foreign visitors to a safe place. The evacuation will not be as successful without such items as initially planned.

A hotel or a public facility designated as a shelter may not have stocked enough food and water for estimated number of evacuees for the expected length of evacuation stay. Oddly enough, in some cases, the reason for the insufficient amount of food stock is a lack of budget to replenish the stock.

(4)Training and drills

A survey on tourism crisis management was conducted at a recent crisis management seminar. The survey result revealed that only 7% of the respondents think that “All the employees understand what is written in the disaster prevention manual and they can act according to the manual in case of emergency.” 33% of them think that ‘More than a half of the employees’ can do so. It means a majority of the organizations, both public and private, are not ready to exercise the crisis management procedures written in their emergency manual.

The primary reason for this is that they do not have enough opportunities for training and drills. Hotels, for example, operate 24 hours, 7 days, and it is not easy to have evacuation drills with all the guests staying in rooms and dinning in restaurants. They usually end up in doing minimum mandatory fire drills that are enforced by the local fire department. Tourism service providers have a large number of part-time employees who work for a limited period of time. These part-time staff may not have a chance to participate in drills.

Drills are mostly done within the organization and facility, and only in few occasions, private companies in the same destination get together to do evacuation drills in collaboration of the local government.

It is highly recommended that tourism service providers and public sector in the same destination have joint evacuation drills more frequently. Because once a crisis arises, local government and private sector together need to cope with the situation to evacuate residents and visitors and rescue the victims of the hazard.

(5)Next step after the crisis

Once the emergency situation is settled down, the recovery of the tourism in the area depends largely on how soon the destination takes the ‘next step’ for recovery. Australia’s ‘The National Tourism Incident Response Plan’ clearly identifies the roles and responsibility of the government, state and other tourism related organization for the early recovery of tourism in the affected area and it specifies when and what needs to be done by which organization. This is certainly the BCP of Australian tourism.

When you look at the government’s disaster prevention plans in Japan, you can hardly find a chapter or verses that identify who are responsible for researching and analyzing the market after the crisis and for making a tourism recovery strategy and promotion plan. Japanese government has announced that tourism is one of the most important industries for the future growth of nation’s economy. Then, the tourism crisis management plans in Japan should be upgraded to the standard that Australia has shown.

There must be many things that need to be considered when you reflect the challenges and issues discussed here on your business or your destination.

In the next article, I would like to share with you successful cases of tourism crisis management in Japan and overseas.

Masato Takamatsu
C.E.O.