Paul Charles, CEO of travel PR firm PC Agency, has warned that holidaymakers have been left “confused and worried about losing their money,” and there needs to be a rethink over the Foreign Office travel advice system.
Charles said: “Sadly we’re going to have to get used to more incidents like this – wildfires in the southern Mediterranean are going to become more common, so the travel industry needs to rework its plans for how to deal with this sort of thing.
“Consumers will want more reassurance in the future about the hotspot areas that will mean airlines and travel operators will need to have better plans in place for dealing with these sort of crisis and that might mean more flexible refund policies, it might mean putting more resources on the ground in a destination over the summer period so that they’re prepared.
“I do think the Foreign Office now needs to conduct a complete overhaul of its travel advice system.
“It failed the industry this week because the advice didn’t change and also consumers were caught between a rock and a hard place as they knew they would lose their money if they didn’t carry on with their booking and fly into the zones affected.
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“There needs to be a complete overhaul of the Foreign Office travel advice system – what it’s for, how it changes and it needs to be in consultation with the industry.
“Either they create a whole new system or the Foreign Office doesn’t do travel advice and creates a new code of conduct for airlines and travel operators to follow.
“It’s left consumers confused and worried about losing their money.
“The travel advice from the Foreign Office is not fit for purpose for climate change.”
Mr Charles added of the wildfires: “Clearly it will happen again in the future, if not this year then next year.
“This is a wake-up call for airlines and travel firms to rethink their response plans in this sort of situation.”
Rory Boland, editor of Which? Travel, said some travel companies “dragged their feet” on updating flexible booking policies, making holidaymakers choose between “travelling into a natural disaster zone, or sensibly cancelling and losing their money as a result”.
He added: “Without a Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office warning against travel to the affected regions, travellers who don’t want to go but are refused flexibility to rebook are likely to be left holding the bill for acting sensibly, and will be unable to claim on their travel insurance.”
However, Abta has said the travel industry actually is “well-versed in responding to international events.”
A spokesperson for the trade association said, “The number one priority has been – and always will be – people’s health and safety.
“The response to the wildfires in Rhodes has been a collaboration between the Greek authorities, travel industry and UK Foreign Office.
“The travel industry is well-versed in responding to international events, particularly in rapidly changing circumstances, with the health and safety of customers the priority.
“It has clearly been a very difficult and upsetting time for those affected by the wildfires, both in Rhodes and due to travel, and Abta members have been working flat out to support those customers.
“The purpose of the Foreign Office travel advice is to provide important advice on destinations.
“Rhodes is a large island and a significant proportion is unaffected by the wildfires, meaning people can and have been able to continue to enjoy holidays in those parts.
“We know many people want to continue to holiday in Rhodes this week and have done so.”