What really happens during a tourism disaster?

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You may have heard about Friday’s attack on a hotel in Egypt, an event that is unfortunately becoming all the more common.

So what happens behind the scenes in the travel industry when an attack or other disaster takes place?

You may be surprised to learn that as soon as reports of a catastrophe emerge, many wheels start turning in the industry. Not just at the headquarters of the hotel brand in question, but at the travel agencies, OTAs, airlines and more.

Let’s start by going back to the world of corporate travel. In the business travel world, organizations have to uphold what is referred to as “duty of care.” A company must know where its employees are while they are out on the road, so that in the event of a disaster, they can do everything possible to locate those employees, notify appropriate parties and hopefully arrange to evacuate them. This makes sense, because employees traveling for business are a liability of the company that sent them on the road. Such tracking typically uses a risk management solution.

Sometimes, notifications can be shared with travelers before they are affected, giving them time to avoid a situation. For example, in the event of an outbreak of an infectious disease, a travel manager might be able to use the notification from their risk management solution to inform employees to avoid certain areas of a city.

On the leisure travel side, it would seem that travelers are responsible for themselves. However, the companies you use to book your travel actually have their eye on your safety as well. Leisure travel agencies and OTAs typically use risk management solutions similar or identical to those on the corporate side. In the event of a shooting at a hotel, for example, an OTA will immediately receive a notification, cross-reference the affected area with passenger logs, and determine whether any travelers are in the area, right down to the actual property.

Unfortunately, what happens next is a bit more complicated than what happens in the corporate travel world. Typically, your travel provider will first attempt to contact you (with the contact information you’ve provided them during booking) to see whether they can confirm your safety. In the case of foreign travel, your travel provider’s next step might be to notify the U.S. Embassy in the affected country that a passenger is currently missing or out of reach. Your travel provider will continue to do whatever it can to work with contacts on the ground, including embassies, hotels, airlines and local police, to account for you — until your location can be confirmed, chances are someone is looking for you. If you’re lucky, once he or she reaches you, your chosen travel provider will do everything it can to help you rebook and get home. Here’s where there are some important gaps in the system.

While a corporate travel manager will do everything in their power not only to locate and account for a traveler, but also to get them home safely, leisure travelers enjoy a bit less protection. Your travel provider can use phone calls or high-tech tools to help you — but only to a point.

For example, depending on the companies you booked through and on, you may enjoy push notifications through an app telling you of delays, travel alerts and other important warnings. But then again you might not. Your social network also offers a layer of protection: With Facebook’s Safety Check feature, if you are near a disaster you will be prompted to check in and let your loved ones know you are safe. Your OTA will probably have up-to-date information available online about affected areas, changes in travel or security procedures, refund procedures, etc. But while checking in online may soothe the fears of your loved ones, it won’t find you a taxi and a flight. Chances are the phones are ringing off the hook at your airline or OTA. And you might not even have access to a phone.

The bottom line? You should always be prepared to advocate for your own safety, and take steps to mitigate your own risk while traveling. How do you do that? Research and education.

Before you leave for any trip, you should have a sense of what’s going on at your chosen destination. Has there been recent political unrest? Weather disasters? Infectious disease outbreaks? Are there any vaccinations you should get in advance? Are you familiar with cultural etiquette and at least some basics in the country’s language, in case you need to rely on strangers and locals for help? Are there environmental factors that you should consider (e.g., if you have asthma or other respiratory issues, you should look at any air quality warnings)? Where is the local police station? What emergency numbers should you have on hand? Do you have enough cash to get by if you get stranded away from your intended lodging?

Perhaps most importantly, don’t leave your situational awareness at home. Being aware of your surroundings will help you immediately recognize changes in your environment that could pose a threat, and should mean that you are at least somewhat familiar with evacuation routes or other ways to seek shelter should the worst happen.

Above all, follow these two procedures: Get to safety first, and then contact your loved ones and travel providers to let them know you’re safe. If your travel provider can check you off the list, they can dedicate more resources to looking for those who might not have been as lucky.

Communication is critical in a disaster situation. You should take comfort in knowing that the companies you travel with are interested in your safety — but you should also be prepared to fend for yourself.

Heather Dratler

Lover of all things travel and hospitality, both from a personal and professional standpoint. A PR pro by day, I've represented a wide variety of clients in the travel industry since 2008. Sharing my passion for and knowledge of travel makes me happy. Cornell University graduate. Follow me on Twitter @HeatherLori7.

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  • cscasi

    Good safety tips and definitely something to prepare for should one travel to any areas that are or may be likely to experience trouble of various kinds. It’s good to practice this at all times because trouble can crop up unexpectedly and even in unexpected places around the world.

  • 219kimrod

    We were in Paris on Friday 13 November when the terrorists struck. On Saturday morning American Airlines Vacations contacted us to ensure we were OK or if we needed anything such as changing our return trip to the US. They were exceptionally prompt, polite, helpful in several ways, and we were placed on the first flight Monday morning with no expense to us. While I had travel insurance it did not cover the terrorist situation.