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15 Aug, 2011

UK Awakening: Post-riots Issues Emerge for Travel & Tourism

The week of rioting in the streets of many British cities has raised many issues for the travel & tourism industry to ponder both in the lead-up to, and during, the upcoming World Travel Market in November. The earlier the industry awakens to the global awakening now under way, the better.


In what one Israeli publication described as a turning of the tables, riot-hit UK last week found itself at the receiving end of both travel alerts and travel warnings as well as some finger-wagging lectures from its former colonial outposts.

The riots came on the day England and India faced off in the third cricket Test in Edgbaston. Indian media quoted former Indian cricket captain Sunil Gavaskar as saying that England’s cricketers would have “hit the panic button” and talked of leaving the series midway if the UK riots had happened in India.

Gavaskar said such a situation in India would have evoked reactions of wanting to leave by English cricketers. “No question about it, they would have been pressing the panic button. They would have been talking in terms of the team returning home. That is a given,” Gavaskar was quoted as saying.

The Indian media recalled that an England team, under former captain Kevin Pietersen, in fact did leave a tour of India midway after the Mumbai attacks in 2008 but came back to complete the series after a while.

On 13 August, CNN also ran a long piece pointing out the “double standards” in the UK reaction to the riots. Headlined, “What if UK riots were happening in Africa?” the Johannesburg-datelined story said, “Many South Africans have been smug watching the images of lawlessness, anarchy and violence on London’s streets.”

It added, “In the years leading up to the 2010 (World Cup football) tournament (in South Africa), the British tabloid press in particular irritated many South Africans with constant assessments of how “unsafe” South Africa is. Proud locals felt that many English football fans were dissuaded from attending the World Cup because of the fear campaign generated by the British media.

“Now that the South African government has issued a travel warning to citizens travelling to the United Kingdom some have been questioning the double standards.

“Had this happened in South Africa – a year before the World Cup – many suggest that the world’s media would have been pressuring the football governing body, FIFA, to move the tournament someplace safer. FIFA would often hint at a Plan B location, such as “safe” Australia, if South Africa became too dangerous or unpleasant to host the World Cup.”

The report added, “Now that the Olympic Games are to take place in a year’s time in London, some Africans are asking why more people aren’t debating whether England can pull off the world’s oldest sports tournament.”

In Malaysia, the Foreign Ministry advised its citizens intending to visit Britain, particularly London, to inform the High Commission in London of their travel plans, and provided a list of contact details. One Malaysian student sustained a jaw injury after being attacked by rioters.

In Israel, the Jewish Chronicle reported that Israel has issued a travel advisory to any citizens planning a trip to the UK. The report said, “The (UK) Foreign and Commonwealth Office frequently issues guidance to travellers planning on going to Israel, but this week the tables turned.

“As images of rioting and looting were transmitted on television screens around the world, the Israeli Foreign Ministry stopped short of issuing a serious travel warning. But the MFA did warn tourists: “Be alert, avoid gatherings of groups of youths and areas of unrest, and obey police and other local authorities.”

An August 12 commentary in the official Chinese newspaper China Daily also asked “London rioting ignited by what?” It said, “The riots offer food for thought not just for the UK but also for other developed countries. They were the outburst and explosion of a society that has been suffering in silence and which had reached the tipping point.”

“Britain’s economic woes and the axing of social benefits are an underlying cause of the riots. Young people’s frustrations and a sense of unfairness, especially those without higher education, a job or money, finally turned into anger, and a single spark ignited the whole woodpile.

“The riots have also exposed the failure by successive government to ensure social justice across all parts of society. To contain any further troubles, the country will have to do more. In particular, every effort must be made to ensure the 2012 London Olympics are staged peacefully.”

Another August 11 commentary in China Daily by Han Dongping, Professor of History and Political Science at Warren Wilson College, NC. was headlined, “What goes around comes around.”

It said, “It seems odd that the British government would label their own people as thugs and gangsters when they used no guns during the riots, and yet they label the rebels in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen as freedom fighters, despite their widespread use of guns and other dangerous weapons.”

In the TV scenes, one showed a black man haranguing London Mayor Boris Johnson about why Britain was spending so much money fighting wars in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan when that money could be better spent to improve services and facilities at home.

Mr Johnson had no answer.

British PM Claims to be “Absolutely Clear” About “Root Cause”, But Is He?

The UK is no stranger to security challenges. Over the years, it has dealt with everyone from Irish terrorists to the well-known football hooligans. In theory, this long experience should have made it an expert in safeguarding public security. Why it has failed deserves closer scrutiny. Part of the answer lies in a continuing inability to distinguish the symptoms from the cause, a tendency amongst its leaders to listen to what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear, and a lingering quasi-colonial attitude that the west knows best.

According to British Prime Minister David Cameron, “Europe needs to wake up to what is happening in our own countries.” Sounds like good advice, except for the fact it was extended on 05 February 2011 at a Security Conference in Munich at which the entire focus of attention was on Europe’s favourite security-threat bogeyman, the “Islamic terrorist.”

Both terrorism and hooliganism/vandalism are security threats to people, societies and communities, but the British and Europeans have been so obsessed with the former that they ignored the latter. Just as the Norwegians suddenly awoke to see one of their far-right homegrown terrorists, the Blond bin Laden, vent his fury on innocent people, so too did the British experience a nasty bit of “shock and awe” at suddenly finding their streets in turmoil. Indeed, a comparison of David Cameron’s speech in Munich and his comments and statements during and after the UK riots offers some clues to the prevailing blind spots in Europe and the badly-needed wake-up call.

This is what David Cameron said in Munich, “We will not defeat terrorism simply by the action we take outside our borders. Europe needs to wake up to what is happening in our own countries.  Of course, that means strengthening, as Angela (Merkel, the German Chancellor) has said, the security aspects of our response, on tracing plots, on stopping them, on counter-surveillance and intelligence gathering. But this is just part of the answer.  We have got to get to the root of the problem, and we need to be absolutely clear on where the origins of where these terrorist attacks lie. That is the existence of an ideology, Islamist extremism.”

There you have it. Mr Cameron is “absolutely clear” about the causes of terrorist attacks. Other views or perspectives do not matter.

In the same speech, he acknowledged knowing about the anger in the Islamic world about Western foreign policy, its military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, its lack of support for a Palestinian state and double-standards in the treatment of Arab dictators. However, he flippantly dismissed these concerns. He said, “Let us not fool ourselves. These are just contributory factors.  Even if we sorted out all of the problems that I have mentioned, there would still be this terrorism.  I believe the root lies in the existence of this extremist ideology. I would argue an important reason so many young Muslims are drawn to it comes down to a question of identity.”

Now cut to the London riots and Mr Cameron’s speech to Parliament in which he again seems to be absolutely clear about the “deeper problems” affecting society. This time, he blames parents, culture, family breakdowns and street gangs, but not the budget cuts his own government has made that strike right at the heart of British society.

Said Mr Cameron, “Responsibility for crime always lies with the criminal. But crime has a context. And we must not shy away from it. I have said before that there is a major problem in our society with children growing up not knowing the difference between right and wrong. This is not about poverty, it’s about culture. A culture that glorifies violence, shows disrespect to authority, and says everything about rights but nothing about responsibilities.

“In too many cases, the parents of these children – if they are still around – don’t care where their children are or who they are with, let alone what they are doing. The potential consequences of neglect and immorality on this scale have been clear for too long, without proper action being taken. As I said yesterday, there is no one step that can be taken.”

He adds, “At the heart of all the violence sits the issue of the street gangs. Territorial, hierarchical and incredibly violent, they are mostly composed of young boys, mainly from dysfunctional homes. They earn money through crime, particularly drugs and are bound together by an imposed loyalty to an authoritarian gang leader. They have blighted life on their estates with gang on gang murders and unprovoked attacks on innocent bystanders. In the last few days there is some evidence that they have been behind the coordination of the attacks on the Police and the looting that has followed.”

In an earlier statement after visiting the riot-hit areas, Mr Cameron had underscored his understanding of the root cause. He said, “There are pockets of our society that are not just broken but, frankly, sick. When we see children as young as 12 and 13 looting and laughing, when we see the disgusting sight of an injured young man with people pretending to help him while they are robbing him, it is clear there are things that are badly wrong in our society. For me, the root cause of this mindless selfishness is the same thing that I have spoken about for years.  It is a complete lack of responsibility in parts of our society.  People allowed to feel that the world owes them something, that their rights outweigh their responsibilities and that their actions do not have consequences.”

Having identified the “root cause”, Mr Cameron had a list of solutions ranging from more police powers to monitoring of social media and the employment of an American expert to deal with street gangs. He added: “We need a benefit system that rewards work and that is on the side of families. We need more discipline in our schools. We need action to deal with the most disruptive families. And we need a criminal justice system that scores a clear, heavy line between right and wrong. In short, all the action necessary to help mend our broken society.”

But an August 12 commentary in the official Chinese newspaper China Daily was also “absolutely clear” about what it felt to be the “underlying cause” of the problem. Headlined “London rioting ignited by what?” it had a different perspective entirely:

“The riots offer food for thought not just for the UK but also for other developed countries. They were the outburst and explosion of a society that has been suffering in silence and which had reached the tipping point. Tottenham is home to many disadvantaged people. Haringey, the borough that includes Tottenham, has the fourth highest level of child poverty in London and an unemployment rate of 8.8 percent, which is double the national average.

“Britain’s economic woes and the axing of social benefits are an underlying cause of the riots. Young people’s frustrations and a sense of unfairness, especially those without higher education, a job or money, finally turned into anger, and a single spark ignited the whole woodpile.

“Frequent violent demonstrations in Europe indicate that developed countries are not immune from social unrest if people’s concerns are not heeded. Besides bracing themselves for the consequences of their spluttering economies, industrial countries face new bottlenecks in promoting racial reconciliation, increasing employment and reducing the gap between the haves and have-nots.

“The riots are a blow to Britain’s economic policies and the belt-tightening measures Prime Minister David Cameron has introduced. Since the coalition government came to power just over a year ago, a slew of brutal government spending cuts and austerity measures have been imposed as a result of which the country has witnessed several strikes, trade union marches and student protests. This has pushed economically disadvantaged people to the brink. Those who are taking to the streets are people who have nothing to lose.

“The riots have also exposed the failure by successive government to ensure social justice across all parts of society. To contain any further troubles, the country will have to do more. In particular, every effort must be made to ensure the 2012 London Olympics are staged peacefully.”

Who appears to be “absolutely clear” on the root cause of the problem, and its solutions? Mr Cameron or China Daily? As politicians and leaders are prone to blame everyone but themselves, I would put my money on China Daily.

What Lessons Will Be Learnt by the UK and the Global Travel & Tourism Industry?

Violence and mayhem are not good for anyone, least of all travel & tourism. Mr Cameron sought a “wake-up” call. He got it right on his home-turf. If the industry takes advantage of this wake-up call, it has a clear window of opportunity to play a positive and constructive role in shaping what follows. The UK tourism authorities as well as British expatriates abroad can facilitate a rebalancing of travel & tourism relations in the light of a changing world order. The UK is now in the same boat as the countries whose security conditions it has criticised. It should be ready to face questions about its own travel advisories, visa policies, crisis management apparatus, security regulations and indeed the broader context of these policies.

For starters, the UK authorities can no longer lecture the developing countries of Asia, Africa or Latin America on how to put their house in order. In the new emerging world order, accountability is set to become a two-way street, and the global playing field certainly more level.

Here are some issues that deserve to be put on the table.

Travel advisories: The UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office maintains a full webpage offering its citizens travel advice by country. Much of this advice is outdated and irrelevant. In an age of social media, the timing, methodology and content of this advice is in need of a major overhaul. Governments of host countries have often complained that the advisories overstate and exaggerate the scale of problems and impact the flow of British visitors. As the UK government is cutting back on its spending, one good move would be to cutback on the time-wasting advisories, and pass the responsibility to the private sector or the host countries. Tour operators, airlines, hotels, host destinations and the social media are far better sources of advice on local conditions anywhere. The only advice from the FCO should be on consular and legal issues.

Inspite of this advice, the Foreign Office’s latest British Behaviour Abroad report shows that Britons are still getting into preventable problems abroad. Released on 15 July 2011, the report is based on incident figures reported by British visitors and residents to FCO offices around the world between April 2009 and March 2010. It shows high numbers of drink and drug related cases: 944 Brits were arrested for drug-related offences last year, accounting for a seventh of all arrests of British Nationals around the globe. Alcohol is a serious root cause.

British chambers of commerce abroad and other such institutions can make a positive contribution by conducting some objective analysis. In future, they can expect to be held accountable for inaction. The next time the UK government comes out with a travel advisory against a country, both the government as well as British institutions abroad should be prepared to face questions about what lessons they learnt from the UK riots, and what right they have to issue advisories.

Balancing The Security Equation

The looters, vandals, thugs rampaging on the streets of UK cities all have the right to travel on British passports, and walk visa-free into Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and numerous other countries around the world. On the other hand, the wretched people of Asia, Africa and other developing countries have to queue up for hours at the outsourced visa issuance centres of British diplomatic missions, provide detailed information to visa processing officers and pay exorbitant amounts in fees to earn that right.

This playing field needs to be leveled. If the British want to get their share of Asia tourists, their visa processes will need to become less expensive and intrusive. At the same time, they will have to help the host countries keep out the people even the British refer to as “yobs”. Developing countries need access to the same screening systems by which the European countries keep out undesirables. Immigration authorities in the host countries need to know through the Advanced Passenger Screening systems of any potential undesirable, such as a football hooligan or paedophile, who is on a plane to any foreign country so that the local authorities have the right to refuse them entry.

Earlier this year, UK Home Secretary Theresa May justified denial of a visa to an Indian Muslim televangelist, saying that visiting the UK was “a privilege, not a right”. Very true. All the more reason why it should become reciprocal.

Crisis Management

British and European travel media regularly question tourism authorities of the developing countries about “safety & security” issues. They are welcome to keep asking, but can now expect to face similar questions about the safety and security in their own countries. Unlike developing country NTOs which rush to mount crisis management programmes and offer frantic explanations on their tourism websites to reassure tourists how safe everything is, the British did no such thing. A check of some key websites such as VisitBritain and British Hospitality Association found them to be pretty much in business-as-usual mode.

A lone release came from the European Tour Operators Association which said simply that the riots had left tourism “unaffected” and that cancellations had been “negligible at less than 0.2%.” Said the release, “Throughout the world, August is a low news month. The images of disruption in England have spread around the world causing alarm in many origin markets for Britain. But this has not resulted in any significant drop in immediate visitor numbers.

“ETOA members had over 38,000 people staying in hotels in London on 10 August. By lunchtime 11 August, they had received 330 cancellations for the forthcoming week. On the basis that these people would have stayed two nights, this represents 660 missing bed-nights throughout the week or barely 95 cancellations per night.

“Notwithstanding a couple of student groups choosing to defer their arrival, a cancellation rate of 0.17% is below the threshold of background cancellation. People cancel for a myriad of reasons; the disturbances have, for now, proved as significant a factor as having a sick dog or flooding the bathroom.

“Why is this the case? Firstly, distressing though the scenes are, the coverage has been of comparatively anonymous locations. No major landmarks and no significant numbers of tourists have been caught up in the trouble. Secondly, such riots occur nearly everywhere. Paris, Madrid, Athens, Los Angeles, Moscow and Bangkok have all experienced rioting and looting.

“The significance lies in how a country is seen to deal with it. To the fury of many in Britain, the images have been of the Police trying to contain the trouble. They have not violently confronted it. Images of property being damaged is very different from those of people being hurt. So the story of the last few nights, played out on television sets throughout the world, has been of an unarmed police establishing order. The story of the next few nights will be of the due process of law bringing suspects to account.

“Some of the individual cancellations are now rebooking. London remains safe for tourists. And tourists understand that London remains safe.”

Role Of Global Travel Events And Industry Associations

An “awakening” process has begun big-time as part of a new world order. No country is immune. Are global travel events and industry associations awakening, too? No such luck. The travel & tourism industry is well-known for steering clear of sensitive, controversial issues. One day, it will realise that living in denial is not sustainable in a world in which everything is inter-related, from economic crises to globalisation to security concerns to the environment to geopolitics.

Pretending a problem does not exist is a strategy guaranteed to fail. More trouble is looming in September when the world will square off over one of the world’s most controversial geopolitical issues: Recognition of an independent Palestinian state. Britain is set to vote against it. Be prepared for more protests on its streets. It is going to be a very interesting World Travel Market this November.