Is there an up-to-date crisis management plan for tourism? Has it been activated? Has it been communicated to the industry?
These are some of the questions posed by CEO of Harvest Group Management, Adrienne Harris, in an open letter sent to the Minister of Tourism, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, today (April 22).
Harris – an economic development specialist with a particular focus on leveraging tourism to support economic development in developing countries – shared the letter with Tourism Update in which she highlights that what is needed for the tourism sector to survive the “unprecedented crisis” it is currently facing, is a comprehensive crisis management plan.
“Going through all the strategies, work plans and annual reports since 2011, the only mention I can find of a crisis management plan is in the annual report of 2011/12. In trying to track this framework, I have been unable to find any other reference specifically to Tourism Crisis Management,” writes Harris.
She points out that the private-sector businesses must be the pilots in command, with government and the private sector organisations providing the “ground support”.
“We will need your strength and determination to ensure that the needs of the tourism industry are heard within Government and that we receive the full support of other ministries,” continues Harris.
According to her, if the correct policies and procedures are in place for day-to-day operations, it is much easier to institute emergency protocols if required. “Do we have the confidence that this is the case in tourism? Can we safely assume that each entity knows its role?”
The full letter:
As someone who has been directly involved in the SA tourism sector for more than 30 years, I am writing to express my personal observations regarding the industry’s ability and capacity to navigate its way out of the current COVID-19-related crisis, and the state of preparedness of your department in its response to that crisis.
This is undoubtedly the most difficult time in the history of tourism in this country, which has nevertheless faced its fair share of challenges in the past, including the turbulent times in the early nineties, the economic recession of 1998, the horror of 9/11, the market crash of 2008 – just to mention a few. We’ve also had to deal with some home-made problems such as the recent visa debacle. Each time, the industry has been able to rise to the occasion and through co-operation, get back on its feet.
This time, however, is different. The tourism industry finds itself in an unprecedented crisis – one where we, more than ever, need the support of Government in order to survive. Your leadership over the next few months and years will determine if we survive and flourish again, or if we flounder like so many destinations before us. We will need your strength and determination to ensure that the needs of the tourism industry are heard within Government and that we receive the full support of other ministries.
In recent years, I have been working mainly for the international donor community in other sub-Saharan countries, and have now returned to South Africa. As my focus has not specifically been on South Africa, the lockdown has given me time to update myself on the activities and performance of the South African tourism industry over the last few years. I have done this by reading every single report, strategy and plan that I have been able to lay my hands on. The COVID-19 crisis has led me to wonder how well prepared the South African tourism industry was for such a devastating event.
There is no doubt that the economic fall-out of the pandemic is massive and governments across the world are battling to come up with suitable strategies to navigate their countries through this crisis. President Ramaphosa has unveiled his “mini Marshall plan” and has some of the best minds in the country working on ways to soften the blow for South Africa. I decided to see if I could find a concrete example of how to prepare and deal with crises in general – unfortunately, we know there will be more to come. In trying to come up with a useful example, I looked at the civil air transport industry. In so doing, I identified a few key points relevant to the tourism industry.
The best scenario, of course, is to minimise the risk in the first place. Aviation is a highly regulated industry, but it is appropriate regulation necessary to ensure both seamless integration as well as safety. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) recommends international civil aviation practices and most countries have committed to include these recommendations in their own regulations as per the Chicago Convention.
In addition, most airlines are members of International Air Transport Association (Iata). This is a membership body that states its mission as “working together to shape the future growth of a safe, secure and sustainable air transport industry that connects and enriches our world”. In my opinion, the most important thing to note about Iata is that it is a private-sector membership organisation, whereby the aviation industry is able to regulate itself. These mechanisms are not in themselves foolproof, but when it comes to the actual operation of an aircraft, it is these regulations that make flying the safest form of transport in the world.
In the instance of a flight emergency, the golden rule for the pilots is “aviate, navigate, communicate”. The most important step is to get the aircraft under control. The pilot-in-command decides the safest direction to fly and then communicates an emergency if required. This only takes one word, mayday, for a whole raft of support entities to kick into action.
In our industry, the private-sector businesses must be the pilots in command, with Government and the private sector organisations providing the “ground support”. If the correct policies and procedures are in place for day-to-day operations, it is much easier to institute emergency protocols if required. Do we have the confidence that this is the case in tourism? Can we safely assume that that each entity knows its role?
In aviation, there are set procedures for all involved as to how they need to communicate, when, what and with whom. Over-communicating or providing unnecessary information only causes distraction and confusion. Do we have the proper communication policies in place?
In the complex aviation eco-system (air traffic control, ground control, fire and rescue, apron services and many others), each entity is manned by qualified and well-resourced personnel. Are our teams being given the capacity building and equipment to do their jobs? Do the relevant private-sector organisations have the appropriate resources they require?
Each aviation emergency (and not just major crashes) is thoroughly analysed and any gaps in policies and procedures are immediately updated. This results in a continuous learning environment, so that practices improve further over time. Do we have the proper monitoring and evaluation systems in place? Are any lessons learnt actually being applied?
Of course, over and above this, there has to be a complete crisis management plan. Going through all the strategies, workplans and annual reports since 2011, the only mention I can find of a crisis management plan is in the annual report of 2011/12. In trying to track this framework, I have been unable to find any other reference specifically to Tourism Crisis Management. I have the impression that it seems to have morphed into a Tourist Safety Initiative. Is there an up-to-date crisis management plan for tourism? Has it been activated? Has it been communicated to the industry?
While we are in lockdown, I am certain that not all the Department of Tourism’s staff are involved in crisis management. If this is the case, now would be a perfect time to task them with accessing documents for the type of information that will be required when this is all over and we are able to reflect on what has just happened.
I would be happy to volunteer time to such an exercise and I am sure that there are others with knowledge and experience in the sector who would do the same. Now is the opportunity to look at what has worked in the past, what hasn’t and what we can learn from this.
Warren Buffett famously said that “only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked”. I fear that COVID-19 might have left our sector’s vulnerability somewhat exposed.