There is no doubt that the actions of terrorists are having a significant impact on the tourism market. In the past 12 months, the attacks in Tunisia have resulted in the Foreign Office warning against all but essential travel to that destination; the crash of the Metrojet flight from Sharm El Sheikh (irrespective of the cause) has resulted in restrictions on travel to the Sinai Peninsula; and whilst it is still too early to say, it looks like the bombing in Istanbul has impacted on customer confidence about booking holidays to any destination in Turkey. When we add in the Paris attacks, it is clear that for many holidaymakers, their choice of destination is being impacted by the actions of terrorists.
If we assume that the terrorists have a strategy, beyond simply causing disruption and terror in the places where they carry out their attacks, then it’s worth thinking about what they are trying to achieve.
The effect of discouraging or preventing travel to a destination is to damage demand for that destination. That means that those people who previously worked in the tourism economy find themselves without work, and therefore without a source of income. I can remember many years ago that work carried out in Egypt highlighted that for each person employed in the tourism sector there were typically (I think) 10 or more economic dependents, relying on their income. Typically, when you consider the induced economic benefits of tourism – workers in the industry buy food, clothes and other essentials, and by doing so, result in other workers being employed, it is easy to see how those numbers are derived.
However, the terrorist attacks result in large scale unemployment in what are primarily Muslim countries, leaving young people with nothing to do, and no source of income. It is easy to see how with a little propaganda, it would be possible to distort the message, and blame the lack of work and lack of income on the decadent Westerners who are no longer visiting the country. That must, at the very least, increase the likelihood of some individuals, and potentially quite large numbers, being radicalised, and turning to support the terrorist organisations.
Therefore, government concerns for the safety of their citizens, as well as our natural tendency as travellers to avoid unnecessary risks could have the indirect effect of creating more supporters for the terrorists, and therefore create a vicious downward spiral.
To put this into numbers, visits to North Africa fell by 8% last year and visitor numbers to Egypt are down from 14 million in 2010 to a projected 9 million this year – and I suspect that even those totals are quite optimistic. Who knows what will happen to tourist arrivals in Turkey? They have already fallen out with the Russians, who are their largest source market for tourists, and the Germans, who lost 10 of their citizens in the bombing near the blue Mosque may well be reluctant to travel.
The governments of these destinations do have a problem. They want to encourage tourism, but to do so, they have to convince potential tourists that their destinations are safe, and that they will face no risk in travelling there. They may be able to take some steps to improve security at a local level, and it is for this reason that the Egyptian Minister of Tourism recently announced the appointed of specialist security consultants, the Control Risks Group, to advise the government and key parts of the country on what steps can be taken to improve security at their airports and in the destination. However, the more cynical commentators then tend to point out that the government are admitting failings if they need to appoint specialists to undertake this work.
The government then face a problem in trying to demonstrate improvements – since if they take journalists to show what steps they have taken, there will always be some who will look at possible weak spots.
However, this form of reassurance has to represent at least a step in the right direction.
The biggest challenge will always be that it is never easy to spot where the next attack might be coming from – and having addressed one weak spot, there will probably still be many others.
The tourism industry does then have to get behind the affected destinations, provided that they have some confidence in them, and work collectively to promote those destinations. However, in a litigious society, where there is such a strong blame culture, if something does go wrong, those selling the riskier destinations do walk a tightrope, and risk facing claims if something happens.
Ultimately, governments in the key source markets of Europe in particular do need to recognise that unless tourism thrives in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey, the alternative is ever increasing radicalisation of the population – and if that happens, the only winners are the terrorists. Western governments do therefore have a key role in helping make, and keep, these destinations safe. And governments need to recognise that this is not about words, but about positive actions and support. The UK government has kept only one line item of its total budget untouched through years of recession and fiscal control – and that is International Aid. Wouldn’t some of that money be better spent in developing and protecting the tourism product in those higher risk, and vulnerable countries?