The Summer Manifesto: what must we learn from the Rhodes wildfires crisis?

This week the term “Mediterranean island escape” acquired a new meaning. Wildfires swept across part of the isle of Rhodes, triggering the evacuation of thousands of tourists.

Package holidays to the Greek island are resuming this weekend. But with fire risks also high in other parts of Greece and elsewhere around the Mediterranean, prospective holidaymakers are increasingly concerned about their rights.

The Greek authorities, holiday companies and the UK Foreign Office also face difficult questions about their response to the emergency.

This seven-point plan shows how the travel industry, holidaymakers and government need urgently to change in response to the increase in extreme weather and other dangers.

Destination choices

British travellers must reappraise ther travel priorities – and recognise that keeping doing what they have always done, summer after summer, is not necessarily the correct answer.

Extreme heat appears to be becoming a feature of some Mediterranean countries, especially in July and August. If temperatures are to continue to rise, then it is beholden on the traveller to ask themselves whether a more northerly destination might be more appropriate and less environmentally damaging.

British seaside resorts, nearby overseas nations including Ireland, Belgium and the Netherlands, or the Baltic coast of Poland are unlikely to see 40C-plus temperatures.

Curiously, weather-informed choice already happens in the reverse direction. UK holidaymakers are famously responsive to wet British summers, with tour operators observing sharp increases in overseas holidays for the following summer.

Upfront risk assessments

Tragedy inevitably accompanies mass tourism. But risks can be minimised. Prospective holidaymakers should conduct their own research about potential dangers. Road accidents and drownings account for most deaths of British tourists abroad, but threats posed by wildfires, natural disasters and terrorism must also be taken into account.

Holiday companies must be upfront and transparent at the point of booking about risks – whether climatic, tectonic or political – and explain how they manage those dangers.

Watching briefs

Accounts from holidaymakers caught up in the Rhodes wildfires repeatedly indicate that the threat posed by nearby wildfires was ignored until almost too late.

When honeymooners newly arrived at the airport are put on a coach and driven straight to a school-turned-crisis-centre to sleep on the floor for several nights, as happened in Rhodes, something has gone badly wrong.

Local authorities should be active, not passive, in identifying potential risks. The Greek emergency authorities have performed heroically this week, but could the “evacuate” button have been pressed earlier?

While tourism is often the sole economic function of many resorts, hoping bad news will go away is not a viable strategy.

Travel firms need eyes on the ground, too: the traditional holiday rep should fulfil this role, and report immediately to HQ should smoke start rising in the sky above the resort.

Evacuation plans

Holidaymakers flying to the deep south of Europe by air were all given a meticulous briefing about how to leave the aircraft in an emergency. Yet when an actual emergency befell them at their hotels in parts of Rhodes, there appears to have been precious little planning or foresight.

In areas at risk from wildfires, earthquakes and other natural disasters, hotel guests deserve briefings on the emergency evacuation plan. This would also have the merit of making properties come up with a plausible plan, even if it is only: “Head for the beach – and leave your luggage behind.”

Cancel culture

The Rhodes crisis swiftly acquired a British political dimension, with opposition politicians urging the government to add Rhodes to the “no-go” list in order to allow people with bookings for the island to cancel without penalty.

The Lib Dems’ foreign affairs spokesperson, Layla Moran, said: “As wildfires blaze and thousands are evacuated, it is staggering that the Foreign Office travel guidance for Rhodes does not advise against all but essential travel.”

Families who booked holidays in late July chose to do so at the summer peak of temperatures. If a holiday company can deliver a safe and enjoyable holiday, there is no reason to cancel. At the risk of sounding harsh, holiday companies can fairly respond: you wanted hot and sunny, and we will deliver the experience you ordered.

Foreign affairs

During the Covid pandemic, the UK Foreign Office chose to trash its hard-won reputation for reliable travel advice by aligning its threat assessment to the government’s now-discredited “traffic-light” scheme of perceived Covid risks. At one point peaceful Portugal carried the same danger rating as parts of Somalia and the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Given such official idiocy, it is unsurprising that people with bookings to Rhodes who are having second thoughts are seizing on the prospect of a get-out-of-jail-free card in the shape of a government “no-go” rating for the island. It would then allow them to cancel for a full refund.

The Foreign Office should ignore all calls – whether from No 10 or political opponents – to act as a provider of holiday sick-notes, and get back to the basic principles of risk assessment.

No-blame investigations

One reason aviation has achieved astonishing levels of safety is by learning, openly and transparently, from previous tragedies. We need a forum for investigation into large-scale holiday traumas that learns lessons rather than apportions blame. Travel is a joy that needs to be protected – along with the lives of travellers.

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