Speech by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bert Koenders, at the Vakantiebeurs

Speech by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bert Koenders, at the Vakantiebeurs (Holiday Expo), Jaarbeurs exhibition centre, Utrecht, 13 January 2015.

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

First I would like to wish you a happy and prosperous 2015. I hope you will all travel far and wide this year, meet interesting people, enjoy beautiful views and return home safe and sound.

A special welcome to the representatives of the host countries of the Vakantiebeurs 2015, Spain and Curaçao. I hope your countries will benefit from your presence here.

There is something symbolic that these two countries are host countries. Some forty years ago, when I was a teenager, Spain was the first really foreign country you would discover.
They spoke a language there that you didn’t learn at school. In Spain the wine and food were cheaper than in France and most importantly: the country was further away from home than your parents would generally travel in their Alpenkreuzer popup camper, loaded with potatoes and peanut butter. In Spain, you would be free.  On the other hand, Curaçao – even though it is a part of the Kingdom - or any other island in the Caribbean for that matter, would be the holiday destination of an average millionaire, completely out of reach for the average family. You probably would be a member of the Dutch Marine Corps, which had an important base on the island in former days.

Times have changed, and I think it is for the better. The Alpenkreuzer went the way of the country that produced them: East Germany – out of existence. The further away you travel, the more affordable it becomes, so it seems. And the availability of potatoes and peanut butter is no longer a matter that determines our destination. The Dutch Marine Corps has a motto: Que patet orbis - as far as the world extends. It could be the motto of the Dutch tourist as well.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As you all know, the Dutch like to travel. Last year Dutch nationals made over 22 million trips abroad, mostly as tourists.  You and I are involved in making such trips possible. We have different responsibilities, but our goals are very much alike. And like you, my ministry is a service provider. If we do our work well and deliver excellent services, people can truly enjoy their foreign travels.

For many Dutch travellers, my ministry is one of their first ports of call. More and more people rely on us for country-specific information, travel alerts and travel warnings.

Those of you who attended the conference that my ministry organised last year, heard about the revamped travel advice section of our website and the new Travel Advice App. I am happy to tell you that these initiatives have worked very well. Dutch tourists have been far better prepared in the past year:

-    Over 800,000 people a year – 2,000 people a day – consult our new website for travel advice.
-    Over 280,000 have registered for email travel alerts and 50,000 have downloaded the Travel Advice App.

And that is important. ‘Prevention is better than cure’, as a famous and well-travelled Dutchman once said. I am talking about the great humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam. It’s no coincidence that his name was given to the EU-funded programme for European student exchanges, as he spent most of his working life on the road.

800,000 page visits every year might sound impressive. At the same time it is modest compared to the 22 million foreign journeys I just mentioned.

So we still have a mountain to climb. We will continue to encourage people to make use of our services, and I hope you will encourage them to do so too. And to tell us if you think there is room for improvement.

Despite all their precautions and preparations, travellers sometimes still need follow-up services. Some lose their travel documents. Some fall victim to crime. And some run into an unexpected crisis.

Especially with the needs of these people in mind, we are working improve our service delivery even more. We want to make it easier for travellers to contact us when they get into difficulty, so that we can help them better. I’d like to highlight three steps we’re taking:

1.    This year a Consular Contact Centre will be set up within my ministry. It will handle all incoming calls from travellers in need worldwide. We believe this will make our consular support much more effective and efficient.

A centralised service will be a big improvement, making consular services available to all Dutch nationals abroad, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

2.    The Travel Advice App will be enhanced with a contact button making it easier for users to reach the Consular Contact Centre.

3.    And finally, we will make our consular services much more responsive to new forms of communication, notably via social media.

We saw a striking example of that responsiveness last week. Immediately after the horrific events in Paris, a man tweeted the ministry asking if it was still safe for him to go to Paris over the weekend. A good question.

We could instantly tell him – and our followers – that we have updated our travel advice for France, asking people to be more alert. At the same time we made it clear that there is no negative travel advice for France or Paris. He replied that he would rather not go to Paris, as ‘staying alert’ was not his preferred way to spend the weekend.

OK, fair enough.

I might have reacted differently if I’d been in his position, but that’s not the point. My point is that the man made an enquiry, and after receiving information he took an informed decision. That’s a good thing and I hope it becomes even more common in the future.

The launch of the Consular Contact Centre is just one step in our ongoing programme to modernise the Dutch diplomatic service. One of its aims is to improve delivery of services to an ever growing group, as more and more Dutch nationals are living, working and travelling abroad. And the places they go to are becoming ever more diverse.

At the same time, the world is increasingly volatile and unpredictable. Many of the international crises in the past year have affected tourism and increased demand for consular services. Like the conflict in the Middle East and North Africa, the rise of Ebola and, most especially, the crash of flight MH17.

These are tragic events, to be sure. And they have increased awareness of the risks of foreign travel, which is good. But we don’t want risk awareness to turn into risk aversion. Take the Ebola crisis. Some people are now avoiding travel to all African countries. That is a major overreaction, it is ridiculous.

So we – representatives of destination countries, the travel industry and my ministry – have a common goal here as well. Let’s make sure that tourists are well aware of where they go, but focus on those areas where the risks are significant. It is our joint responsibility to paint a realistic picture, without throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Because at the end of the day we only stand to gain from growing international travel, be it for business or tourism. And there is good news: international tourism was set to hit a new high by the end of 2014. According to the UN World Tourism Organization in Madrid, over 1.1 billion tourists travelled abroad in that one year.

Back in 2009, when the economic crisis in Europe was starting to bite, one of the Oxford English Dictionary’s words of the year was ‘staycation’ – a way of saving money by spending the holidays at home. Those days are over, if we are to believe the trend signalled by the UN.

I’m glad to see individual countries working to facilitate tourism. Tearing down barriers leads to more tourism, tourism leads to tearing down barriers. It is a virtuous cycle. More international contacts between ministers, diplomats and civil servants are good. More international contacts between citizens are even better.

Let’s all work to make that possible, and make international travel and tourism as safe and excellent as possible. I wish you a very successful Vakantiebeurs.

Thank you very much.