Tours, Troubles and Tactics: Travel News from WTM 2014

View across the rooftops of Prague towards the city centre

Keeping up to date with travel trends can be a tricky business, but putting reps from most of the world’s countries in one big London exhibition space definitely cuts out the middleman. This week I headed to World Travel Market, a huge trade event at the ExCel Centre, and squeezed in amongst 50,000 professionals, press and government ministers to find out the latest industry insight. Here are my main takeaways for the year…

Walking tour spot in Old Town Square, Czech Republic
One of Prague’s two starting points for tours.

Being a tour guide in Prague is a risky business

At a city tourism seminar, the CEO of walking tour company SANDEMANs New Europe spoke out about the difficulties and dangers of operating in Prague. “There’s a lot of street violence,” Chris Sandeman told the audience. “Other companies have even beaten up our staff and put them in hospital.” Chris explained that all tours in Prague 1 (the most historic zone) can only start at two specific locations to comply with city and government guidelines. It’s not hard to imagine how this must heighten tension between different groups competing for their livelihoods.

When I visited the city last year I didn’t see any violence, but I did notice a lot of overcrowding in the Old Town Square, with companies battling for attention, and it was tricky to find the precise free walking tour I was looking for. Fortunately the regulations are all set to change, and soon six different starting points will be allowed, making life much easier for both the companies and their customers.

Retro women on the beach in tea dresses and chairs
These women have the power. And the deckchairs.

80% of travel booking decisions are made by women

That’s right, ladies wear the trousers when it comes to deciding where and when to go, and who to travel with. What’s confusing here is that innate sexism in the industry – from boardroom ratios to hotel chambermaids – goes against the female purchasing power. Whilst many leading airlines have attracted criticism for sexist behaviour, such as British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Ryanair and Air New Zealand (either because of uniform policies or PR stunts), this is largely seen as the norm. Interestingly, when I attended a women’s rights seminar, Kuoni’s Head of Corporate Responsibility was keen to point out that his organisation had made progressive steps, such as policies on diversity and equality, but a lot more needed to be done: “We still have a pay gap; we need to educate people, change attitudes and get flexible working hours.”

So do all these female decision makers know or care about the equality attitudes of a travel company? And, if they did know, would it have any weighting on their choice, or would they still plump for a deal that’s £50 cheaper but keeps their fellow women working for a pittance? I’d like to think anyone armed with the right information would want to do their bit (I certainly do), but in a world of price comparison sites and voucher codes it’s fair to say that price is a huge motivator for most consumers. However, there are some ethical companies taking a stand, like Adventure Alternatives (represented at the seminar), whilst still offering a fun holiday experience.

Wall art graffiti in East Berlin, Germany
It’s 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Germany has reinvented itself (though sections like this are left as a reminder).

Every country, no matter how war-torn, knows the value of tourism

Remarkably, during my third seminar of the day (the very wordy Tourism’s Role in Post-Conflict and Post-Disaster Regions) I learned that every country in the world has a tourism minister. Although this sounds impressive, it also takes some getting used to. After all, when we see months or years of news coverage devoted to a country in dire straits, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya, it doesn’t quite seem possible that the people in charge would expect anyone to visit. Moreover, could any willing tourist leave unscathed? The panel explained that, as long as security organisations, journalists and often the FCO consider it to be relatively safe, a destination can welcome visitors, but prices can be unreasonably high and travel can be difficult to organise if there’s a shortage of ground transport or appropriate hotels. Mainstream operators will still be wary, though – Professor Tom Selwyn from SOAS pointed out that, right now, “Kenya is relying on FIT, or Free Independent Tourism.”

One major post-conflict success story is Belfast, a totally transformed city that represents a new era for Ireland, moving on since the Good Friday Agreement was signed 16 years ago. Whilst change didn’t happen overnight, Suzanne Wylie from Visit Belfast described how controversial sights like the “88 peace walls dividing communities” have gradually become attractions, albeit softened a little, “and we now have ex-prisoners offering tours.” If the past can be dealt with head-on, instead of buried, there’s loads of potential for people to learn from these kinds of attractions, especially when they’re put in context with other historic sites in such a multi-layered city.

Volcanic landscape with palm fronds in Central America El Salvador
How beautiful is this little country?! Credit: Otto Rodriguez via Flickr (flickr.com/photos/otrarove).

El Salvador should be added to the bucket list

I spent a long time chatting with the team at the El Salvador stand and came away with a serious crush on the country. It’s mainly known for a volcanic landscape and great surfing conditions, but that’s just for starters. The tourist board has worked hard to develop different routes, such as the nature-heavy Sierra Bay Circuit, and the Artisanal Route, which looks like a souvenir hunter’s dream. Personally I’m drawn to the Coffee Route, with highlights including a visit to Los Pinos Cooperative for a fairtrade coffee growing tour overlooking the Coatepeque crater lake.

The country’s history is also a big plus point, especially at Joya de Cerén, a village frozen in time by a volcanic eruption; this UNESCO World Heritage Site is often compared to Pompeii and dates back to 500-600 AD. To continue the theme, in San Salvador there’s an anthropology museum to check out, as recommended by Frommer’s, and the MARTE art museum. Further afield, Perquin is home to the Museum of the Revolution, where ex-guerrillas act as tour guides (a good example of post-conflict positivity). This is not a place for a passive holiday – it’s somewhere to really get involved in your surroundings.

With the travel newsflash over, I want to know what you think. Are you surprised men have so little influence on holiday decisions? Are you looking to visit a post-conflict destination? Get in touch.

2 thoughts on “Tours, Troubles and Tactics: Travel News from WTM 2014”

    1. I was totally unaware as well, Chloe! I guess we have no idea what it’s like for the guides on the street until people speak up about it. As for WTM itself, you should definitely check it out next year – whatever day you visit, it’s well worth a look.

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