A neighbor of mine likes to talk travel. When I saw him one morning last week, the subject of Africa came up, and he said he really wanted to go to Egypt. He asked if it was safe.
I told him we had sent two reporters there since the change in government last year, and that they had loved it. They felt safe enough, and there were no crowds.
"Yeah, but have the ships returned yet?" he asked.
That was an interesting reaction. Not "What does the State Department advisory say?" or even "Are tour operators going there?"
In his mind, the measure of a country's visit-ability could be judged by whether cruise ships called at its ports.
As regards Egypt, it's probably as fair a measure as any, given that country's historical attractiveness as a cruise destination. At any rate, it's certainly a better measure than whether a reporter is willing to visit.
And now that I've done a little research, next time I see him I'll mention that, according to their websites, Azamara Club Cruises will be calling in Safaga, Sharm el-Sheik and Suez in May, while Silversea and Princess will be calling at the Egyptian ports of Safaga and Alexandria, respectively, later this month. Other lines indicate calls are on the schedule for later in the year. The cruise industry, it appears, is giving Egypt a green light.
Coincidentally, in last week's Travel Weekly, we reported that Oralia Rice Rodriguez, secretary of tourism for Sinaloa, the state where Mazatlan is located, challenged several cruise lines' assertion that safety concerns had motivated them to skip the port. She insisted it had more to do with economics: It's cheaper, she said, for the lines to spend another night in Cabo, and that was the real reason they had struck Mazatlan from their itineraries.
Of course, if expense is the true reason cruise lines are skipping Mazatlan, her pointing that out is not likely to win back the business. But raising the issue provides her with an opportunity to make the point that no guests on cruise ships visiting Mazatlan have been killed, and that steps have recently been taken to further strengthen security for visitors.
Realistically, many considerations go into whether a line decides to call at any given port. Costs, security, port facilities, concessions and guest demand are all part of the equation. As it turns out, Princess and Holland America have reinstated Mazatlan for calls later this year. (In making those announcements, both lines were careful to add that they're continually re-evaluating security at ports of call.)
How can a travel agent judge whether a destination is truly safe? Due diligence on destination security is not an exact science. Reading the (sometimes politically motivated) State Department advisories is often like reading the boldface warnings on cigarette cartons. The notices for some countries all but say "travel kills." Yet handing these cautionary statements to clients is considered among the best protections a travel agent has against lawsuits.
It's my belief that the real due diligence should be done on a client's temperament and tolerance for risk. For instance, by all means show hesitant clients TravelWeekly.com's map of Mexico outlining exactly where State Department warnings apply, but also evaluate their reaction and whether, in your judgment, the unusually high value available now in Mexico might overcome any residual nervousness.
If not, even if the clients ultimately would have a good time there, they'll miss out on the happy anticipation of an upcoming trip, an important aspect of leisure travel that might last longer than the trip itself.
To sharpen your ability to read a client's tolerance for risk, familiarize yourself with the allocentric/psychocentric traveler model developed by the late, great travel researcher Stanley Plog. Type "Stan Plog allocentric" into Google and then click on the "Tourism and Culture -- Google Book Result" link.
Much of the article that comes up is a bit academic, but the definitions of allocentric and psychocentric, as well as the charts on "Travel Characteristics of Psychographic Types" and "Travelers' Motivations," are enlightening.
It turns out that destination due diligence hinges as much on internal geography as physical geography. For travel agents, it's ultimately as critical to understand comfort zones as danger zones.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.