Germany's biggest tourism company wants to show it cares more about terrorism concerns than others. But TUI's plan to introduce a risk certificate isn't getting a lot of support.
Are tourists well enough informed before disaster strikes paradise?
To TUI it's a sign they care deeply about the well-being of their customers. To others, it's a clever marketing ploy.
Whatever the take, the tourism titan's proposal to let PriceWaterhouse Coopers evaluate its crisis management system is a first in an industry that critics say has preferred to keep its ongoing security debate out of the public eye.
A TUI spokesman said the plan will allow the company to see how well it prepares customers travelling to high-risk areas and how it responds when a crisis occurs. At the end of the evaluation, the company will receive a certificate from the global consulting firm that will confirm that its warning and response system to crisis situations such as terrorist attacks and natural disasters, is as good as possible.
"The communication policy regarding security was very conservative for a long time. There was this idea that we're a sunshine branch, and such a discussion doesn't belong here," a TUI spokesman said. "But we saw that it was important to our customers, and that's why we wanted to take this step."
Clever ploy in a tight market
Analysts say it's a clever one in a branch that has been suffering declining sales in recent years. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the US and ensuing attacks on European tourists on the Tunisian island of Djerba and in the Sahara plunged the industry into a crisis from which it has only recently begun recovering.
Germans, who along with Americans are the tourism industry's most dependable customers, initially followed the trend, spending $2 billion (€1.5 billion) less on tourism in 2001 compared to the previous year. In 2002, they spent $53.2 billion, only slightly higher than the $53 billion they spent in 2000, according to the World Tourism Organization.
German tourists: in demand
In such a market, every little incentive to choose one competitor over another can help.
"A certification is a way of answering the question: 'How can I separate myself from the competition?'," said Günter Schröder, an industry expert and author of several books on tourism, in an interview.
How much can they do?
In reality, said Schröder, TUI can't offer anything new in the way of risk prevention and crisis management. All tourism companies have contacts in the regions to which they plan trips that assess the security situation. They also rely heavily on Germany's foreign ministry, which issues monthly travel warnings, for help in informing their customers.
Some argue that those measures aren't enough. The parents of a six-year-old boy badly burned in a terrorism attack on Djerba in April 2002 sued the company for not adequately informing them of the risks of traveling to the region. TUI won the case at the end of October after judges found the company did all it could to warn its customers.
An explosion at a synagogue in Djerba killed 19 tourists and shook the tourism industry
The company's pro-active approach is annoying its competitors, who say there is no need to make such a certification standard in the industry.
"We think our established crisis management system is good enough," Rolf-Dieter Grass, a spokesman for Thomas Cook, said. "We don't see the necessity for such a (certification)."
Not to be taken lightly
Some analysts also disagree with the way in which TUI is calling attention to what is a very serious subject.
"I think the security topic is too important for companies to establish as a competitive advantage," said Peter Höbel, an expert at the risk management company Crisadvice in an interview with Reuters.
At a conference for German tourism organizations in Mallorca over the weekend, there didn't seem to be much support for making TUI's plan apply to the entire industry. But Schröder thinks that might not be too important. "They're doing it because they want to appease their customers," he explained. "But in the end, TUI can't do much more (against risks) than the others."