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14 Aug, 2001

Travel Agents’ Advice on Health & Safety Not Up To Par

As mass movements of people across countries leads to a corresponding increase in health and safety risks, the role of travel agents in providing proper preventive advice is becoming crucial. However, researchers at the University of Queensland, Australia, say agents are not rising to the task.

In a paper presented at a conference of Asia-Pacific travel and tourism academics in Manila last month, researchers said travel agents have both a practical and legal responsibility to ensure travellers take suitable precautions when travelling overseas, and that they should be support by their own governments, the wider travel industry and the destinations.

However, “current literature shows that travel agents provide health and safety information inconsistently, and the quality and accuracy of that advice is variable. Continuing education and in-service training are needed to meet agents’ legal responsibilities, and to add value in this area of customer service,” the study said.

Health in travel is becoming a global issue with cholera outbreaks, malaria, dengue-fever, gastroenteritis, hepatitis A, etc., becoming particular problem areas. Many of these diseases are spread by insect bites or contaminated food and water.

Worse is the spread of sexually transmitted diseases as a result of unsafe sexual practices among travellers, especially to some Asian destinations. The research quoted one previous study as noting that 60% of Australians visiting a travel medicine clinic prior to travel to Thailand reported an intention to have sex on their vacation.

In another study, it was found that 50% of Australian men seeking treatment at a sexually transmitted diseases clinic after returning from South East Asia had urethritis, 5% genital herpes and 5% hepatitis B.

Personal safety issues such as road and water safety are also very important in Asia Pacific destinations, but this is less likely to be discussed by travel agents than health issues even though injuries account for more travel deaths and serious illness than infectious diseases.

The paper noted that clients do consult and expect their travel agents to provide them with appropriate health and safety advice as part of the service.

However, travel agents have responded in previous research that “they are not doctors”, nor do they have the time to become knowledgeable regarding medical advice. They are also conscious of the business implications of creating a negative impression of health risks associated with certain destinations and their legal liability for incorrect information and advice.

The research showed that in several contrived scenarios, health and safety information was not provided unless solicited. “Of grave concern is that when given, the advice was generally inaccurate, with travellers advised to consume inappropriate medications and receive unnecessary immunisations,” the paper said.

The researchers noted that there is no shortage of health advice available from various groups within the travel industry, and from health professionals in travel clinics, hospitals, public health units, general practices or other centres. It can be accessed by telephone or through the Internet.

The governments of many major tourist-generating countries have websites which monitor current activities in more than 80 overseas destinations and provide free advice and warnings about a rage current health and safety issues, including civil unrest, crime, infectious diseases, seismic activity and weather patterns.

The study noted that in many countries, it is now becoming a legal issue, such as the European Community (EC) Directive on Package Travel (1990) which prescribes a list of items that must be included in tour brochures and other written information such as health formalities for the journey and the stay.

Brochures must also indicate, country by country, for which diseases it is recommended or compulsory to have a vaccination, and where travellers should take preventive medicine.

The Directive also makes the travel Organiser and/or the retailer (e.g. travel agent) liable to the consumer for the proper performance of their obligations. So, if a traveller suffers damage (e.g. a disease) due to insufficient or incorrect written information, the travel organiser and/or retailer will be liable.

Since many airlines and accommodation providers in the Asia Pacific are now being included in such obligations by virtue of their contractual arrangements with EC package travel organisers, the Directive has wide ranging implications.

The research noted that travel agents should insist that visitors carry travel health insurance and have a pre-travel consultation with a medical practitioner.

It added, “There is clearly a gap between the expectations of clients, industry groups and government agencies as to the health and safety advice travel agents should provide, and agents’ willingness and ability to provide such advice.”

Some commentators consider that travel consultants “do not take their responsibility for travel health seriously” while others acknowledge that the travel industry has high staff turnover and hence staff training in pre-travel health advice needs to be an ongoing consideration in all travel agencies.

As travel agents become increasingly concerned about possible legal action from injured, ill or disappointed clients, the importance of accurate and up-to-date pre-travel advice becomes more obvious. Indeed, travel agents need training in providing health advice in such a way that it does not scare off potential travellers.

While the health and medical professions have a major role to play in assisting travel agents with their continuing education, there is also an emerging role for universities, since comprehensive travel health and safety advice includes aspects of health, law, education and business.

At a time when travel agents’ booking commissions are being reduced, and there is trend toward ‘fees for service’ agents have an opportunity to make health and safety advice a positive contributor to their business.

The study said that to do this effectively, several key practice elements need to be put in place:

— Travel agents should have at least one source of up-to-date health information available to them, and supplement this with regular checks on government travel advisories;

— Regular training must be available for staff so that they can identify high-risk travellers and high-risk destinations, as well as developing a reasonable knowledge of travel-related health and safety hazards;

— Finally, travel agents need to develop and follow set protocols when giving advice to clients.

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