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European Travel in Turmoil: Time to Face Up to the Humanitarian Crisis

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At the WTTC Global Summit in Dallas, there were calls from the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) Secretary General, Taleb Rifai, for the travel industry to tackle the two enormous challenges, namely mass migration and global terrorism, which pose an unprecedented threat to travel and tourism, a key revenue generator and job creator.

Existentialism and humanism

Currently, the EU is experiencing a humanitarian crisis not witnessed since its inception after World War II. The region is facing ongoing economic strife and coordinated terrorism attacks, as well as the biggest migration of people since World War II; its very being is under threat due to the UK referendum on Brexit, along with the looming spectre of a Grexit, and financial contagion, particularly in the south of the region.

Nevertheless, despite these challenges, tourism demand has never been higher, and Europe’s share of global tourism actually increased to 51.4% over 2014/2015 to stand at 609 million trips taken in Europe, whether by European or international tourists, according to the UNWTO. There have never been more people travelling for leisure and business purposes, where official figures exclude migration.

Parallel worlds collide

The mixed migration witnessed at key flashpoints in Europe, such as Greece, Spain, and Italy, where refugees are fleeing conflict and migrants are escaping poverty, has led to unprecedented levels of people arriving in the region in seek of shelter and safety. Thousands have died and many still continue to risk their lives making the treacherous crossing from North Africa or through Turkey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Since the beginning of 2015, one million have made the dangerous journey, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Greece recorded that 981,000 migrants arrived on its shores over January 2015-February 2016.

This exodus has led to the creation of detention camps in an attempt to process and control the flow of refugees across Europe and ensure their safe passage to their final destination. Camps are scattered across the region from Turkey to Calais. The crisis has been in the headlines for over a year, and Pope Francis’s recent trip to Lesvos in April shone a light on the tragic plight of the migrants and refugees.

With an extra million people, this places great strain on existing infrastructure and leads to capacity challenges, which is detrimental to the newly arrived migrant population, local residents as well as international visitors.

Europe’s Schenghen zone – the bastion of visa-free and borderless travel – is creaking under the strain of the influx of people and risks fracturing, and the pressure has led to seven countries so far introducing border controls, including Austria, France, Germany and Sweden.

Greek human tragedy

The Observer’s Helena Smith captured the absurdity of the situation: “the incongruity of a setting so beautiful for a tragedy so immense”. Herein lies the contradiction: Europe is witnessing a humanitarian crisis on its beaches and islands and across borders, yet the flow of tourism continues apace. It is such a disturbing dichotomy that a location sold as one person’s dream is the place of such dark human tragedy. Following the new EU-Turkey deal and the closure of the Balkans route, 46,000 people are now being detained in Greece before being returned to Turkey.

Greece’s tourism has boomed over the past two years, and, even in 2015, the numbers continued to be strong, growing 7% to 23 million arrivals, according to the UNWTO. There was a tail-off in the second half of 2015, with Q3 growth slowing to 3.0% and Q4 seeing a 2.6% decline. However, these results were a major improvement on the same quarters in the previous year. So, consumers are still travelling to destinations at the front line of a human disaster. How can this be?

Refugees Arrive in Kos

TOPSHOTS A dinghy overcrowded with Afghan immigrants arrived on a beach on the Greek island of Kos, after crossing a part of the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece, on May 27, 2015. AFP PHOTO / Angelos TzortzinisANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images

Source: Angelos Tzortzinis - AFP/Getty Images, Time Magazine

Time for a reality check?

Looking at intermediary sites like Thomson for destinations like Greece and Turkey which are receiving refugees from war zones and conflict, the web description of Greece as a destination does not make reference to the situation on the ground on certain islands like Kos and Lesvos, and points to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) for advice via a referral link.

This poses the question regarding whether travel brands and destinations should provide greater transparency regarding the migration crisis and boost awareness by doing so, considering that not everyone will check the FCO advice. There is also the counter argument to balance the needs of local communities to earn a living from tourism, especially in recession-struck countries.

FCO Advice

Source: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Note: As of 20 April 2016

Not turning a blind eye

However, the reality is that in an ever-connected age, with immediate access to data, news and images of the human cost of the migrant crisis, it is perhaps time for responsible travel brands to provide their consumers with the information they need to make an informed decision, not just on their destination choice, but also in ways to encourage their consumers to engage with migrants and refugees during their holiday? Consumers are aware of the crisis, yet they are being sold destinations and products that fail to be transparent about the challenges faced in the destination, or what they may witness and experience whilst visiting.

We previously reported on UK travel brands providing clothing and food parcels to migrants and refugees. This is a step forward, yet more can be done to shine a light on the plight of migrants. Travel brands could work in collaboration with the UN Refugee Agency, Amnesty International, local charities, local governments and the private sector to provide small acts of kindness that would go a long way to improve the situation for the displaced. This type of engagement between tourists and migrants could take the form of offering English language classes, arranging sports days, taking children from camps on excursions or providing babysitting services for parents in need of a break. Or brands like Uber and car sharing could be put to good use to help migrants on their way to their ultimate destination.

Now, that would truly be ethical, responsible and sustainable travel, whilst ensuring tourists continue to visit destinations in desperate need of tourism spend; with the right messaging, this would be an inspirational and brave step to make and show that tourism really does care.

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