by Dr. Peter Tarlow
With the Northern Hemisphere’s winter soon to become spring, on some level tourism officials can take a sigh of relief that there were no major pandemics. This season was however in many parts of the world an extremely difficult flu season that resulted in a great deal of discomfort, days missed at work, and even in some extreme cases deaths.
Tourism is especially vulnerable to contagious illnesses. People are in close contact, often both tourism employees and travelers are subjected to filtered, rather than fresh air. Additionally we are all subject to issues of jet lag, disrupted sleep patters and irregular eating. In some of the less well paid tourism jobs employees fear losing a day’s pay if they stay home when ill, come to work sick, and then infect others.
If travel were not hard enough on a person’s body, there are still other problems that must be taken into consideration. For example, hygiene standards are not the same around the world. The traveler often has no way of knowing the level of cleanliness in a restaurant, if waiters and waitresses wash their hands enough and with soap and hot water. People staying at hotels have no way of knowing the quality of the mattress upon which they are sleeping or the condition of the air ducts that bring air conditioning into their room.
Additionally a sick chambermaid may infect a visitor’s room while cleaning it or become ill from a person who is staying in the room and has infected that room by sneezing or coughing. Examples of some of these health and wellness challenges can be seen in problems experienced within the cruise industry due to the Nordau virus, or in tourism buildings due to legionary’s disease,
Tourism promotes travel and schedules are built around the assumption of wellness. A traveler cannot change an airline reservation due to a cold or feeling sick, a person’s hotel reservation may force that person to check out rather than rest, and often it is not easy to find a place to eat at odd hours of the day. Finally, in many parts of the world, it may not easy to find an international doctor, the local health agency may not accept foreign health insurance, and language problems may make it difficult for the ill person to describe his or her problem to the local health professional. These same problems do not only apply to leisure and business travelers, but also to first responders, international aid workers, and government agents. Often these people are so involved in their labors of love that they forget that they too are fragile human beings who are also subject to illnesses. In order to help you think about caring for your visitors and at the same time caring for yourself, Tourism Tidbits presents to you the following ideas.
– Develop a tourism health task force. Keeping visitors and tourism employees healthy is different from keeping local populations healthy. Visitors have less information and often more stress than the local population. The task force should consider everything from medical availability to problems of foreign health insurance. It should also look at local sanitation and hygiene issues, and how visitors can access pharmacies without having a local physician.
– Work with the local media. The can be great allies or become a major problem. There is always a need to have the media aid in spreading information, but this must be done in a way that neither panics the public nor become a problem in and of itself. The example of the SARS reporting a few years ago is a perfect example of what not to do. In that case, misreporting about an illness caused a great deal of economic damage and made the problem worse rather than better.
– Involve government agencies in your overall health plan. Many tourism related illnesses are interrelated to issues of clean air and water. Be mindful of where garbage is stored and even first world tourism locations often suffer from rodent infestations. These of course are also essential issues for the local population but the visitor is more prone to local diseases due to water and air pollution. Visitors often do not know if they can drink local water, how long water has been boiled before being served or if ice cubes have been made from purified water. It is the responsibility of the tourist industry to inform visitors of these precautions rather than assuming that a tired traveler will know to ask.
– Have a plan in place regarding the way that you will deal with travel related mental heath problems. Travel produces stress and stress may result in additional mental illnesses that may range from personal behavior issues to psychotic behavior. Often people believe that being in a new location will solve an anxiety or stress problem. The results are usually to the contrary. This means that tourism professionals need to know whom to call when faced with a person suffering from some form of mental health challenge. Often these problems are made worse by the fact that the person has no support system in place and that the visitor may not be able to communicate in the local language.
– Take care of yourself. The airline industry reminds us to put on our oxygen mask before helping others. Their advice is both sound and sage. The tourist professional cannot take care of others if s/he is sick. This means that tourism professionals need to take flue shots, eat correctly, assure that they have enough rest, and see a medical expert for regular check-ups. The better the tourism professional feels the better that person can handle the stress that comes with caring for others.