Jess O'Dwyer, Pocketalk general manager for Europe, looks at how travel companies can conquer language barriers to help customers access services and get home safely and quickly in foreign emergency situations

In the unfortunate event of a sudden emergency while overseas, travel companies are relied upon to help customers understand what is happening and what actions must be taken.

Emergency events can be anything from natural disasters to wars and terrorist attacks, and public health emergencies (such as COVID-19 and other disease outbreaks).

During these foreign emergency situations, travel operators may need to work with the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) to help UK travellers. 

To do this efficiently, operators will need quick and reliable access to translation services to communicate with a variety of foreign partners, authorities, governments etc to help travellers get home safely and quickly, and access any services they need, like health services.

The right technology helps save lives

The scale of the COVID-19 pandemic was unprecedented in modern times. However, we need only look back just to the SARS outbreak in 2003, and the MERS outbreak in 2012 to understand that dealing with public health emergencies is a necessary part of doing business for travel companies.

During situations like the COVID-19 pandemic, travel operators needed to discuss issues such as the health of some travellers with foreign medics and help facilitate conversations between travellers and medics. It was during the pandemic that the Japanese Government turned to Pocketalk to supply some of our two-way digital translation devices to help deal with the situation aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

On February 3 2020 the ship and its 3,711 passengers and crew members were ordered to quarantine at Yokohama Port in Japan after an 80-year-old passenger tested positive for COVID-19.

Because there were over 40 different languages spoken on that cruise, Pocketalk donated 13 voice translators to health care workers on the stranded ship. Pocketalk digital translators can instantly translate 82 languages both in audio and text making it clear for the users what is being asked or said. These stand-alone devices harness software that allows for greater accuracy and covers more regional differences too.

These devices offered quick and accurate support to help the ship’s staff and Japanese medics to speak with potentially ill passengers in more than 40 languages. What's more, it removed the need for human translators, helping prevent even more people being exposed to the virus and slowing down its spread.

Understanding different translation solutions

Travel companies may also need to liaise with foreign governments and other partners like emergency services and military services to gain crucial information, in order to relay it to travellers after events like terror attacks. These attacks mean that flights could be grounded, public transport is closed and arrangements will need to be rescheduled, during which time travel companies need to provide quick and accurate information to travellers who speak a variety of languages to help keep them safe and informed.

During these situations, operators need access to quick and reliable translation services, and the alternatives to digital translation devices can also be used effectively. One option is to use phone translation services like LanguageLine. This service offers phone translations, however, waiting for a translator to assist in certain situations can take time and come with a hefty cost, neither of which may be practical for travel companies in emergencies.

There are also free tools available that offer instant translation but there are issues with the effectiveness of the translations in some cases and GDPR compliant concerns. These tools can often lack minority languages and it’s often those who speak those languages that are most impacted by the communication disconnect. They also rely on the user having access to a smart device, which isn’t always possible due to either resource or security restrictions.

Ultimately, there is no perfect ‘one size fits all’ solution for the travel industry in an emergency situation when emotions are high and pressure is mounting but businesses must consider their communication strategy when planning for the unknown.