Every day of the year, the Trafalgar team and I work tirelessly to promote travel and tourism. Our time, energy, money and focus are dedicated to enticing travellers to visit and discover new places. Despondently, there is one moment that can bring all of the excitement of travel to a painful halt: arrival into the Immigration Hall at an airport.
This painful reality was made vividly clear to me last Saturday evening when I arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport from New Zealand, followed by my cousin’s arrival at Heathrow from South Africa on Sunday morning. Both of us had to wait over two hours in line to go through immigration, which gave me plenty of time to mull this over. What I find baffling is that this exact moment of frustration is often a traveller’s first impression of a destination. The immigration hall is the first time that, once arriving into the country, contact is made with locals. This is where the promise of tourism marketing starts to be delivered… or not.
Knowing this, what should be a warm welcome often becomes a cold questioning of character. Staffing for arrivals cannot be that complicated. And these stern questions: Why are you here? Where are you staying? and When are you leaving? Is it possible to be any more unwelcoming?
Border control is of course an essential means of protecting citizens, and visitors. That is understood. The ‘why’ is not the issue – it’s the ‘how’.
If nations strive to make visitors feel welcome, training must be available to airport staff – immigration, customs, etc. – to fulfill their responsibilities, by looking at numbers and greeting travellers with a smile and a sense of pleasure. Even at London Heathrow airport, the world’s busiest international airport, it is possible. We saw and felt it during the 2012 Olympic Games. The airport experience was a smooth, swift, seamless and welcoming delight.
It can’t be that difficult to schedule teams around aircraft arrivals – after all, they always arrive announced, one knows how many travellers there are in every aircraft and they even know their citizenship.
First impressions are critical, especially in travel and tourism, where meeting new people in new places is part of the joy of the journey of discovery. The immigration personnel and their processes need to be part of a destination’s welcoming committee. This vital aspect of delivery of promise should always be a first priority of tourism authorities. There should be no second-guessing this global truism of travel.
As many unfortunate examples as there are in our travel world, there are examples of how to get it right, and keep it that way.
What have your experiences been? How would you improve the arrivals at airport immigration?