The tourism industry needs to meet the security industry half way

The tourism industry needs to meet the security industry half way

The glitz and glamour of last week’s World Tourism Forum in Istanbul masked industry pundits’ angst over the declining security confidence among would-be travelers. Given the global terror threat, reversing the industry’s fortunes won’t be easy for industry or governments.

In Turkey’s case, safeguarding tourism revenues will require much more detailed policy measures than subsidized jet fuel for airline carriers. Complex policy measures involving public private sector collaboration are what’s required.

If the global tourism industry is going to flourish in these uncertain times, it must understand – and engage with – current and emerging security trends. This approach starts with developing a better understanding of the threats, customer fears and government policy measures and includes employing an entrepreneurial flair for making the best out of the new opportunities that may emerge.

Today’s terrorism and organized crime threats exceed the high water mark set in the early 2000s. Globally, there are more terrorist attacks now than in 2001. These attacks are undertaken by a wider array of groups and individuals, driven by an equally diverse assortment of motivations.

The security problem isn’t just about terrorism, it’s equally related to organized crime. Organized crime groups have become more resilient to traditional police operations. The line between terrorism and crime is becoming increasingly blurred – especially in cases such as the kidnapping of tourists for ransom.

With this kind of threat environment, there should be little surprise that countries such as America, the United Kingdom and Australia are warning their citizens against traveling while also strengthening their own borders.

Many countries provide travel warnings to their citizens traveling internationally. Risk aversion among Western governments ensures that these warnings lean toward overstating threats. And once a threat level has been increased, government officials are loathe to reduce them for fear of getting it wrong.

The problem with such an approach is that eventually, threat or fear fatigue will see travelers increasingly ignore warnings. It’s very likely that more tourists are killed in motorbike accidents each year than in acts of terrorism. But tourists from Spain to Thailand continue to rent and ride motorbikes despite travel warnings. In contrast, the fear of terrorism rapidly changes travelers’ habits.

Equally troubling for the tourism industry is a trend where potential travelers’ fear of terrorism and crime is higher than the actual likelihood of something bad occurring. The problem here is that the tourism industry is impacted by unjustified fear.

If the threat environment doesn’t change, there is a real opportunity for the tourism industry to diversify into providing “secure” or “risk managed” travel products. Imagine tourists making decisions on hotels based on luxury and security ratings.

For the global tourism industry, the problem isn’t just getting people to travel, it’s equally concerned with getting people through international borders. Let’s be honest, walls are bad for the tourism industry.

Once again, government policy decisions on border security often have more to do with fear of terrorism or crime than the actual threat. The problem is that the old-world assumptions about the risk presented by travelers from specific countries no longer holds true. We see terrorism attacks in countries such as America, France and Australia more often undertaken by their own citizens.

This current global trend of “getting tough” on border security doesn’t mean that traveling across borders is getting universally more difficult. The reality is that for the citizens of some countries, international travel continues to get easier. Meanwhile for others, travel is getting difficult or impossible in the face of decisions such as U.S. President Donald Trump’s migration bans. While unjust, if the tourism industry is to flourish, it must engage with this “selective permeability” trend. And perhaps even work with governments to provide services that assist with managing the various visa regimes.

At some borders, there are some big changes on the way. Countries such as Australia are forging ahead with new technology to make travel across borders easier. These countries are engaging with new biometric technologies that make it easier to cross borders for the majority of travelers while also providing greater security confidence. Although expensive, these kinds of border systems are needed to provide the necessary sense of security that will promote global tourism. And the global tourism industry is a major stakeholder for these developments.

The tourism industry has a valuable role to play in shaping future government strategies on border and traveler security. While governments are focused on building walls, the tourism industry needs to work collaboratively with governments to create the necessary bridges that promote travel. To engage in this debate, the global tourism industry needs to meet the security industry half way.

*Dr. John Coyne is the head of the Border Security Program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and was a presenter at the World Tourism Forum 2017.