The tourism industry has been experiencing a series of epidemic outbreaks for over two decades such as SARS, Bird Flu, Foot and Mouth disease, Dengue, and Ebola. Therefore crisis of this nature, is not uncommon to the tourism industry however, it depends on whether our tourism arm has a stringent crisis management plan capable of dealing with such complex situations.
Every year, at the start of the rainy season, the Ministry of Health, Trinidad and Tobago initiate programs to educate the local populace in practices on preventative methods (waste management, vector control, environmental sanitation and chemicals management); and equipping emergency care centres to reduce the spread of dengue. Dengue hemorrhagic infection and Chickungunya are both transmitted to humans by mosquitoes which is common to tropical regions from acute to fatal cases.
Dengue has been a serious cause of concern for many countries in Central America with high mortality rates reported in Honduras and El Salvador. Chikungunya, is a recent infection that has surfaced in Trinidad this year, but does not result in death. Because mosquito infections are common to the islands, hoteliers would do their due diligence during that time of year to enforce measures of vector control, and other best practices to reduce the risk of infections to guests and employees.
Fortunately, the islands custodian to the safety of the nation’s health have managed to maintain a good track record in keeping dengue under control. This is important for the tourism industry as a visitor’s positive perception of the health safety record of the county would have a positive purchase decision.
The question is what happens with a crisis that is new or uncommon to our region? Since World Health Organisation (WHO) declared an Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, in May 25, 2014, the World is now on alert. The virus has crossed borders into other geographical regions and WHO has to act fast to ensure that this virus does not spread out of control.
Ebola virus is a fatal hemorrhagic infection disease (EVD) known to have plagued West Africa for year which can be transmitted to humans by humans and has a 90% fatality rate. This virus is not airborne but can be contacted from direct contact of bodily fluids such as saliva, blood, vomit, sweat or feaces, urine semen
WHO (World Health Organisation) would provide information on a broad spectrum of support for public health organizations such as, guidance on surveillance , particularly in border controls, support with consolidated efforts in resource mobilization, diagnostic testing ,improved ways to protect health care workers, and education material to mitigate against infection. WHO understands that rumours can run rampant in a health crisis and it is therefore critical to have command and control over the flow of information so as to stem misconceptions and curtail speculation.
Our island’s national emergency unit, ODPM and Ministry of Health recently held a press conference on the Ebola outbreak in Africa to the local population. They have ensured stringent measures would be put forward such as port of entry screening units, identified treatment centre and qualified health care professionals for the centres in Trinidad. All alerts and briefings have been provided to immigration officers and stewardesses, to be aware of any visitor that has symptoms closely resembling the virus and the sensitivity of ways in dealing with the situation. They have assured the population that we can trust that they would do their best to avoid any incidents to arise in our country.
Then what will happen if a person possibly by-pass initial screenings at the airport or exited from a cruise on our shores with the dreaded virus? For this reason it is important for stakeholders in the tourism sector (taxi operators, hotels, and restaurants), associations and public agencies to be prepared with pre-crisis emergency plans. It is expected that both Health and Tourism ministries should collaborate with a basic pre crisis plan to:
- Educate stakeholders on ways to manage even the slightest sign should it occur;
- Provide in-room information leaflets to all visitors of safety concerns;
- Support stakeholders with the sensitivity of information of a possible casualty so that the property is not perceived with risk;
- To assure the safety of the workforce in the industry;
- Establish with private sector accessible safety kits for items such as face masks, gloves, disposable tissue packs, bleach solution and thermometers within a period of time.
Every property, regardless of its size or international affiliation should develop a sound understanding of how an Ebola would affect the tourism industry. The tourism Industry in Uganda in 2010 had several Ebola cases but they took proactive steps to ensure that the industry would not be adversely affected. On another note, Singapore, won an award for the country that had the best crisis plan in the tourism sector to deal with SARS outbreak. Both countries managed to regain trust and have seen in bound arrivals improving over the years.
Therefore, lessons can be learnt and applied to develop contingency plans to effectively detect and or at least find ways to minimize any potential crisis without making a visitor feel discriminated.
Here are some pre-crisis tips shared by some international hoteliers who experienced clients infected with SARS virus:
- Work with the Ministry of Tourism to provide Information / Leaflets about the disease to the customer , visitor , workforce;
- Offer masks and disposable thermometers to the customer who appear ill;
- Ensure that workforce is equipped with protective gear;
- Get medical support to brief hospitality members to include basic procedures in their crisis plan;
- Discuss with industry members of any clients who may be at risk at your property;
- Increase health and sanitation awareness with workforce ensuring their safety at all times;
The other phases of a crisis management plan is extremely important for policy makers and stakeholders in the industry but for now at least initial steps can be implemented. So let us be proactive in working towards keeping our industry on a healthy course!