Hopes of recovery from tourism terror

It is a popular, cowardly tool of terror, promising heavy fatalities and a hit to economies of nations that rely on tourists. But history shows this week’s attack in Bangkok and recent atrocities in Tunisia does not mean people will stay away.

Tunisia began deploying armed police around tourist sites after the recent massacre at a beach resort which has left the economy ailing and popular areas deserted. Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP
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It is a popular, cowardly tool of terror, promising heavy fatalities and a hit to economies of nations that rely on tourists. But history shows this week's attack in Bangkok and recent atrocities in Tunisia does not mean people will stay away.

Whatever motivated the man who planted a bomb at Bangkok’s Erawan shrine – a popular attraction for foreign visitors and an important symbol for Thais – on Monday, the immediate objective seems clear.

As events of recent years have shown, in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Indonesia and many other locations, including European capitals, the tourism industry is considered a prime target by terrorists.

The extremists are unmoved by the pleas made by political leaders and the media that the holidaymakers threaten no one. There is no concept of innocence in their minds. To the ruthless militant, inflicting massive, often random casualties amounts to stock in trade.

Murdering well-protected political leaders and other decision-makers can be harder, although attempts are still regularly made and sometimes succeed.

Tourist locations present softer targets and attacking them is designed to cause maximum harm to the economic asset they represent. The effects increase significantly if foreigners are among their victims.

Official responses follow a familiar pattern. The authorities vow to track down those involved, or in the case of suicide attacks, accomplices or organisers. Governments insist those behind the evil acts will not be allowed to achieve their long-term goals and urge the public not to surrender to fear.

But with each atrocity, damage is done and can be devastating, if not always long-lasting. Egypt offers an illuminating example of the harm caused and the possibilities for recovery.

An early example in the recent history of high-casualty operations aimed at tourists occurred at the Queen Hatshepsut temple near Egypt’s Valley of the Kings in 1997.

Sixty-two people, including 36 Swiss nationals, four honeymooning Japanese couples and a five-year-old British girl, were killed. The systematic nature of the slaughter, including mutilation of bodies, caused widespread horror.

Even a leader of Al Gama’a al-Islamiyya, the Islamist group blamed for the massacre, sought to claim the intention had been to take hostages, not commit mass murder and much later denied involvement.

The attack provoked a public backlash against extremists, but tourism – Egypt’s biggest earner – was badly hit, as it was by the knock-on effects of the September 11 attacks in the US in 2001 and by incidents such as the Sharm el Sheikh suicide bombings that killed 82 people in 2005. However, western travel specialists say popular holiday destinations tend to recover and maintain their recovery, provided the returning visitors feel secure.

The BMI research agency, part of the Fitch global financial information group, concluded in July that Egypt’s tourism market was recovering well from sharp declines in 2011 and 2013 caused by “large political uprisings, subsequent changes of government and decline in internal security”.

Sean Tipton, spokesman for the Association of British Travel Agents, agrees. “The Egyptian market is currently quite healthy. But then, Tunisia was healthy before this year’s attacks. Those events killed the Tunisian market, which of course is what those responsible intended, to do as much damage as possible to the industry and economy.

“People tend to trust the advice they’re given by the [British] foreign office with the result that 90 per cent just don’t go any more.”

The Indonesian island of Bali has survived the damage to its reputation caused by the bombings of 2002 and 2005, the first of which claimed the lives of 202 people, 88 of them Australians. The other casualties came from more than 20 countries.

Despite the carnage – 20 more people were killed in the 2005 attacks – visitors have kept faith. In 2012, it was estimated that tourism pumped about US$9 billion (Dh33.05bn) of foreign exchange into the Indonesian economy.

Tunisia may take heart from success in rebuilding confidence in Bali and Egypt as holiday destinations. But the heavy loss of life in this year’s attacks has left its tourism industry battered.

In June, just three months after one gunman killed 22 mostly foreigners when he opened fire at the Bardo museum in Tunis, another Kalashnikov-wielding murderer carried out a deadlier attack on a hotel in the resort of Sousse, leaving 38 dead.

The Tunisian and French presidents, Beji Caid Essebsi and Francois Hollande, moved swiftly to make a joint declaration of “solidarity in the face of terrorism”. But the effect on tourism was instant.

Most of the Sousse dead were British and travel companies quickly flew out most of the 3,000 UK nationals who were there on package holidays.

The British foreign ministry changed its travel advice to discourage “all but essential travel”, a status that remains as the high season draws to a close, despite government hints that it might soon be eased. Tour operators such as Thomas Cook do not plan to resume package tours before early next year.

Even before the Sousse attack, tourism figures for April – the month after the Bardo museum shootings – were 25.7 per cent down on April last year, and revenue 26.3 per cent lower, according to Tunisia’s central bank.

Travel analysts have said pre-bookings by French holidaymakers for July and August were about 38 per cent down on the same period last year.

It is the second time in just less than five years that Tunisian tourism has been dealt a wounding blow. In 2011, after the first stirrings of the Arab Spring led to the removal of the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the surrounding chaos drove down annual visitor numbers from a record seven million in 2010 to under five million.

The number of holidaymakers from France, the country’s former colonial power and its chief source of European travel, plummeted from 1.4 million to only 800,000.

Strenuous efforts to revive the industry were rewarded by a return to figures approaching pre-revolution levels by the end of 2013. Elyes Fakhfakh, tourism minister from 2011 to 2013, mocked a tendency in the media, especially in France, to portray the country “as if it’s Afghanistan”.

As the recovery gathered strength, six million tourists were counted last year and the figure had been expected to rise before this year’s attacks.

Now, the Bardo and Sousse atrocities that were claimed by ISIL have again brought Tunisian tourism, which accounts for 7 per cent of the economy, to its knees and are threatening the fledgling democracy.

It would have been lost on the Sousse killer Seifiddine Rezgui Yacoubi, a 23-year-old electrical engineering student who was shot dead by police, that his actions endangered the livelihoods of the 400,000 compatriots, 10 per cent of the population, estimated to work in the sector.

Those familiar with Tunisia continue to acclaim the country’s charm and what diplomats in Tunis describe as the overwhelmingly friendly nature of its people towards visitors. Tunisia also offers a relatively low-cost holiday and this, along with the visible security introduced at holiday resorts, may gradually draw people back.

But there as elsewhere, attempts to prevent further attacks will not soothe the fears of holidaymakers wondering where they may safely travel. Nor will they deter terrorists from seeking to cause further bloodshed.

Thai prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha described the attack on the Erawan shrine as intended to “destroy our economy, our tourism”.

Andrew Herdman, director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, told the BBC: “It’s bound to affect tourism. Tourists will be fearful and tourism is a key pillar of the economy.”

In Tunisia, there is some belief the same resilience it showed after tourism suffered chaos in the Arab Spring, will see the industry triumph over adversity.

Jack Lang, president of France’s Institute of the Arab World and a former French minister of culture, gave this hope a boost by pointedly choosing to take his planned holiday this month in Tunis and the resort of Hammamet.

Mr Lang acknowledged the need to feel safe, but gave a blunt reminder.

“Tunisia is no more dangerous than France, the US or Great Britain,” he said. “Terrorism can strike anywhere even when we try to take all possible measures of precaution in our countries.”