Comment: It would be wise to scan for metaphorical icebergs

The industry must not get complacent despite positive trends, says Digital Drums’ Steve Dunne

The travel sector has had much to celebrate lately with plenty of good news and positive trends. And long may it stay that way.

However, history shows us that it is during the good times that bad seeds take root and start to grow, often unnoticed. And, if not addressed early, those bad seeds can create a whole lot of trouble.

A lesser-known part of the business of public relations management is something known as “environmental scanning”. This is where the PR function looks in the darker, shadowy recesses of the field, takes a drone-like view of the bigger picture and looks for potential icebergs in the distance.

And while travel PR has always been brilliant at promoting sun-kissed, palm tree-fringed beaches, historic sites and fascinating cultures, environmental scanning is something that hasn’t been practised that much in the past. That’s why the industry struggled to get its messages during Covid to resonate with the powers that be.

Among the digest of good‑news travel stories that cross my desk daily, I am seeing a few, let’s say, “off- colour” travel-related stories.

They are nothing to spoil the much-needed jubilant mood of travel principles and tourism board bosses. But while the confidence of the industry is buoyed by the current upbeat trends and statistics, there is a real danger that a sort of complacency could settle in and the industry fail to wake up to big new challenges until it is too late.

Negative stories

Recently, I spotted several stories about protesters in Tenerife staging hunger strikes over the impact of overtourism on their island and its population. When I mentioned this to travel friends and tweeted about it, I was dismissed with a metaphorical wave of the hand and an “it’s all about Airbnb – nothing to do with us” type of answer. And maybe they were right.

That same week, an interview on the radio caught my attention. It was a climate change protester who put forward a slightly different argument about stopping air travel from the usual carbon footprint one.

“Overseas travel is a net loss to the UK economy,” he stated. The presenter seemed wrong-footed by this approach and asked how, to which the caller smugly replied: “Travellers earn their money in the UK but spend it overseas.” The presenter failed to mention the jobs created by operators, travel agencies and airports, and that alarmed me. But, taken in isolation, it was no big deal.

Tourism blamed

The recent Budget saw the chancellor zero in on travel, raising Air Passenger Duty for travellers flying in business class, first class or premium economy – a populist move that, outside of the travel sector, got absolutely no traction in the media.

During the winter, we saw news headlines about the success of the Amsterdam tourist board’s “dissuasion” campaign targeting British men aged 18 to 34. And we saw the destination crowing about how successful its campaign had been.

A quick scan of newspaper databases, though, brought up headlines such as “Wish you weren’t here” and tales of wheelie suitcases being banned from the cobbled old towns of well-known tourist hotspots throughout Europe.

The same databases revealed similarly negative tourism stories from cities including Venice, Rome, Barcelona and Lisbon relating to inflated property prices, vandalism and overcrowding, with all blame laid firmly at the feet of tourism.

Again, these stories stand in isolation, so it is tempting to think it’s no big deal – that it’s the media being deliberately negative as always. But it only takes a few to join the dots for a groundswell movement to start.

The travel industry is brilliant at crisis management. It always has been. But when it comes to issues management, it could be argued that it has proved less unified and flatter-footed.

And crises often come about because issues were not dealt with in good time. The sector needs to have a more unified approach to the practice of PR environmental scanning and a more robust approach to issues management.

It’s better to deal with the iceberg when it is several miles away than when it is bearing down upon us.

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