Tourism is now having its OCD moment in the face of the coronavirus. Will new sanitation protocols in the tourism sector buy peace of mind for travelers post-pandemic or usher in a new age of travel anxiety?
Clean is the new sexy for tourism stakeholders around the world as more countries and destinations look to ease coronavirus lockdown restrictions in the coming days and weeks.
With the belief that heightened hygiene standards will be a priority for nervous travelers when international borders open up, a raft of post-pandemic cleaning and sanitation protocols aimed at protecting the health of guests and staff have been revealed by major hotel chains and airlines in recent weeks.
These new hygiene regimes range from Marriott’s hospital-grade electrostatic sprayers to meal delivery robots at Asia hotels, and in the latest Hilton has announced plans to collaborate with RB, the maker of Lysol and Dettol, and consult with Mayo Clinic to roll out its own heightened cleaning standards. HEALTH SCREENING FOR ATTRACTIONS Unlike the highly regulated restaurants, hotels or cruise ship sectors, what’s clearly missing in the wake of the global health crisis are sanitation standards defined for the tours and activities segment, said Jon Peahl, a travel industry veteran who was Tiqets.com’s Asia Pacific regional director until the coronavirus outbreak struck off his position earlier this year.
The gap in hygiene certification in the tours and attractions sector led Peahl, together with several senior-level travel industry executives laid off during the crisis, to establish SanSee Systems with offices in North America, Europe and Asia. With its inception, the hygiene company has also rolled out a new public health screening tool designed for the tours and attractions industry to implement the latest science-based hygiene policies for their guests and staff.
“There is a tremendous pent up demand for consumer experiences right now, but travelers are deeply concerned about their safety,” said Peahl, who now heads SanSee as founder and president. “By providing a standardized set of certifications, guests seeing a SanSee Shield online or onsite know in advance that the place they’re visiting is taking necessary precautions to guarantee the safest experience possible.” Tapping his background in public health and epidemiology, Peahl also engaged a panel of advisors includes scientist, regulators, lawyers, among others, to develop a proprietary questionnaire based on the latest knowledge of the spread of Covid-19 and other potential pathogens.
An examiner will then conduct the “decision tree” questionnaire of around 100 questions with tour and attraction operators, guiding them through different sets of questions depending on their response to each one, according to Peahl. The evaluation process typically takes about 30 minutes, with some photos required or brief follow-up. Tours and attractions that meet the safety criteria will receive the hygiene shield, while SanSee will continue working with operators to improve their sanitation levels before awarding the seal. The company follows up each time recommendations change, which happens frequently as Covid-19 research is published in a torrent of sometimes conflicting information, added Peahl.
Expecting operators to go above and beyond the guidelines, Peahl said quarterly check-ins will be conducted with clients to see if any changes have been made, and “secret shopping” is planned at some point in the future as on-site verification is currently not possible during the coronavirus lockdown.
SanSee will not apply a “heavy handed” approach to make sure operators maintain their standards, he added. Instead, the audit company asks for voluntary self-reporting if a venue significantly changes its cleaning policies and operators will be given opportunities to correct any drop below the minimum standards before the SanSee Shield is withdrawn for any failure to comply with standards.
In addition to setting industry standards, the new health screening tool is aimed to accelerate the healing process for the tourism sector with pricing for the audit services “well below market value”, said Peahl. A walking tour outfit, for instance, will be charged $149 for each itinerary, and fees are pegged according to the company size or visitorship for attractions. “We don’t collect any payment until attractions reopen, and [operators] can do monthly payments instead of one-time payments,” he shared.
ONE STANDARD DOESN’T FIT ALL As much as the SanSee tool was conceived to help operators ensure they have baseline sanitation standards in place, Peahl readily admitted that there’s no one size fits all approach within the highly diverse tours, activities and attractions sector. “For certain attractions such as museums where many exhibition pieces may be out of touch, it may suffice to wipe down buttons and common touch areas, but other museums with high experiences may differ,” he noted. “A good example is an escape room, which may have as many as 250 items for touch, so an electrostatic disinfectant may be more feasible.”
Like Peahl, Zishan Amir, general manager of Mega Adventure, operator of outdoor adventure parks spanning ziplines and obstacle courses in Singapore’ Sentosa Island and Adelaide, stresses that operators have to understand the nature of their attractions to determine the implementation of any sanitation and hygiene measures. “The real challenge moving forward is to rethink all aspects of our operations to provide the guest with the confidence that all measures are in place,” he added. “Contactless payment, provision of gloves for guests and staff, and clear communication will be key additions to the customer experience. These will come over and beyond the SG Clean basics.”
While donning gloves in the pre-Covid era has been viewed as a form of protection against blisters, he expects such accessories to become a post-pandemic sanitation feature among zipline tours and aerial adventure parks as guests will have to touch the obstacles, harness and ropes.
“From a hygiene perspective, I see gloves being something which will add an additional sense of safety to our guests in Singapore and Adelaide,” Amir stated. “Since constant cleaning in an outdoor environment is impractical, I believe the gloves provide a dual purpose.”
NECESSARY OR EXCESSIVE? However, Laos Mood Travel Co-founder and General Manager Laurent Granier is skeptical if the sanitation certification for tours makes a difference to assuage travelers’ hygiene concerns. “If you are obsessed about hygiene and safety, you do not travel lightly and are not predisposed to enjoy [the travel experience],” he said. [Instead], you’re driven by fear.”
Furthermore, it also begets the bigger question of risks and safety concerns travelers are already exposed to during the travel journey – from airports and plane rides to ground transfers and hotel check-ins, for instance – even before reaching the destination itself, he added.
What Granier thinks would be more apropos for ground handlers and tour operators is to follow local norms, such as providing hydro-alcoholic gel for hand washing and making sure drivers and guests wear masks. “Travelers will adapt and comply to local norms that have proved efficient. It’s not necessarily something too complicated or tedious.”
Most importantly, it’s up to each destination to prove their safety worthiness to travelers post Covid and travel planners to trust the judgement and discernment of destination management companies, said the Laos travel specialist.
“I believe if a destination is not perceived as reasonably safe, people will not travel to the country,” he said.