Is The Medical Tourism Sector Prepared?

World events are often complex and intertwined, requiring increased preparedness, improved management and effective recovery to maintain and increase competitiveness. This is particularly important for any form of tourism when it comes to crises, given the impact of major geopolitical events and civil unrest, terrorism, epidemics and natural disasters on this sector. While it is too early to assess the lasting effect of the Coronavirus on world tourism, the immediate impact on inbound and outbound travel from China has been plain to see.

Crises Recovery

The research by WTTC, in partnership with Global Rescue, a membership organisation providing medical, security, evacuation, travel risk and crisis management services, analysed the impact of 90 crises between 2001 and 2018, at a national and city level, examining the time to recovery as well lost arrivals and lost visitor spending. 

Of the 90 crises analysed, 32% were related to terrorism/security, 13% to disease/outbreaks; 19% to political instability and 36% to natural disasters.

The key findings from the research included: 

  • The tourism sector is more resilient than ever. Average recovery times have decreased from 26 months in 2001 to 10 months in 2018. 
  • Of the four crisis categories analysed, political instability proved the most challenging, with average recovery times of 22.2 months, minimum 10 months, while terrorist or security related incidents have the shortest average recovery time of 11.5 months (minimum 2 months). 
  • The average recovery times for natural disasters and disease outbreaks were 16.2 months and 19.4 months respectively (minimum 1 and 10 months respectively). 
  • Public-private partnerships and effective, transparent communications are critical for preparedness and prevention.

The WTTC recognised that while there is still work to be done, it felt the data from this research shows that recovery times have fallen significantly over the past two decades, and that major strides have been made.

Interestingly, political instability rather than epidemics has proven to be the most challenging crisis to overcome for the tourism sector, with the longest recovery times.

Political turmoil and civil unrest can take many forms, including violence between domestic factions, large scale protest movements, as well as coups d’états and uncertainty. An example of civil unrest includes the Arab Spring, which began as a series of pro-democracy demonstrations in Tunisia in December 2010 and spread to other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

Political instability or civil unrest is far more damaging to a country’s tourism sector than one-off terror attacks. Unlike single terrorist attacks, manifestations of civil unrest or political instability often occur over a prolonged period of time, extending the disruption to the economy and strengthening the perception of instability at the destination. The uncertainty linked to civil unrest or political instability can impact inbound and outbound travel with people delaying their trips.

Crises Readiness and  Management

Sometimes as challenging as the crisis itself is the preparation, management and coordination of the resources needed to mount an effective response.

The report suggests that through successful public-private collaboration, effective communication and continued efforts that focus on preparedness and prevention, the global tourism industry is already making a real difference in reducing both the economic and human impact of such crises.

The report goes on to offer recommendations on how destinations can mitigate the impact of a crisis, showcasing successful examples from Kenya, Mexico, Egypt, Hawaii and Japan. It highlights the importance of tourism destinations being prepared and the need for coordinated management to ensure a successful recovery.

All-Hazards Emergency Planning

The WTTC and Global Rescue recommends that governments and private sector organisations should individually assess their own level of preparedness and have an operational “all-hazards” emergency action plan in place.

Beyond an all-hazards plan, destinations and businesses should also have a sub-set of response plans for different types of crises. Learning from any previous experience, destinations need to take stock of their capabilities and have a clear view of what will be expected of them during a crisis.

Review of these plans should be a regular, sustained activity that rigorously assesses new and previously unrecognised threats as they continue to emerge and sets out all the key information, contact details and procedures that need to be in place should an event take place.

Communication Management

Strategic communication and effective media engagement during the immediate aftermath of a crisis are critical to the sector’s timely recovery. Successful responses require proactive, honest, transparent and factually accurate communication to the extent of the crisis, with detailed information on ongoing health and safety issues. This honesty can foster trust.

The report states that it is vital for authorities to take control of the story and respond quickly, giving instructions, being consistent, open and accessible and expressing empathy. Having a proportionate response is key. It is important to be honest about the information that is known and what is still unknown; and continuously communicate to the public.

As destinations recover and rebuild their confidence, they need to re-compete for lost ground. This requires transparency and ownership of the crisis; with a clear and honest articulation of what happened, what has been done in the wake of the crisis and the promise of what a destination will do in the future.

Managing the perception of safety and security is key. This involves informing tourists when the transition from crisis management to recovery has taken place and whether they can safely travel to and around the country again.

Is The Medical Travel Sector Ready?

The medical travel sector is still an emerging market and to date has not had a strong track record in responding to crises. Governments and officials are often defensive, or do not react quickly enough, and frequently do not communicate about how the crisis is impacting healthcare organisations in the country.

However, to be taken seriously, medical travel destinations must develop ways of being ready for any crisis and dealing with it in a mature way. While medical tourism is not covered in the WTTC and Global Rescue research, this report is well worth reading as a starting point.

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