Terrorism and tourism

This is the author’s presentation to the Congress on International Cultural Tourism (Uluslararası Kültür Turizmi Kongresi) in Konya, Turkey on 13-16 July 2016.   It will not be updated in the light of later events.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) advised authors “never to let the truth get in the way of a good story.” This is another way of describing “confirmation bias”: the tendency to enjoy hearing things that support your views and to disbelieve things that show you’re wrong.

If only good journalism simply meant choosing the honest facts. On a lot of important subjects, there isn’t much solid information. One such subject is the links between tourism and terrorism.

If you google the two words you get about 12 million results. Unfortunately many of them are based on a single report by the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Their study, carried out a few years ago, looked at the effects on tourist numbers of four types of crisis – a terrorist attack, an epidemic, an environmental disaster and political unrest. It concluded that terrorism was the least important.

  • Terrorism: recovery time 13 months
  • Disease: 21 months
  • Environment: 24 months
  • Political unrest: 27 months

When everyone is quoting the same report, it’s probably the only study of its type and so it hasn’t been confirmed.

Another reason to be suspicious is the source. The World Travel and Tourism Council is an international organization of executives in charge of promoting travel and tourism. Obviously they’re going to be optimists.

Apples and oranges

At a second glance, we can see that their numbers are complete poppycock. It’s impossible to generalise sensibly about the types of crisis that they looked at.

  • What disease? It’s easy for tourists to take precautions against malaria, but not against ebola, which is not even curable.
  • How big an environmental accident? Chernobyl was a full 30 years ago, and the whole area is still off-limits
  • What kind of political unrest? It’s obvious that the current meltdown in British politics will not affect London tourism. The falling pound may even help it.

The only certain thing is that large natural disasters have an enduring effect on tourism. It takes a lot of time and money to rebuild infrastructure like roads, airports and hotels.

So let’s not try to compare terrorism with other scourges of the tourist industry. It’s more useful to consider individual cases.

In 2005, bombings in London killed 52 people plus 4 of the bombers. But there was no measurable effect on tourism.

In 2004, train bombings in Madrid (10 bombs, 4 trains, 3 stations) killed 191 people. Tourist arrivals in Spain went back to normal in a few weeks.

But the attack on the national museum in Tunis in March 2015 (22 dead, mostly Europeans) and then shootings near the city of Sousse in June (38) had a massive effect. Tunisia’s tourist earnings were 35% lower in 2015 than in 2014.

The questions

In predicting the effects on tourism, these are the critical factors:

1. Who did the terrorists attack?
Attacks specifically aimed against tourists, at airports, in hotels or on the beach, will obviously worry potential visitors more.

2. Is the country widely known for more than tourism?
Among the western public Tunisia is hardly known for anything else. France and Britain are constantly in the news, and these other stories push terrorism down the agenda.

3. Is there a pattern of attacks?
Terrorist acts of high frequency will steadily reduce tourism demand, whereas an individual act, even a severe one, will be forgotten in time. [Footnote]

It’s worth adding that business travel, the most profitable part of the industry, is hardly affected by anything. The bombings in Brussels in March 2016, at Zaventem airport and Maalbeek metro (32+3 dead,) will not curb the number of business visitors at all.

The answer

The most useful question I can answer is: how can a government minimise the effects of terrorism on its tourism? Or rather: how can it avoid magnifying the effect?

Egypt suffered its worst-ever tourist attack in 1997 when six gunmen from an organisation financed by Osama bin Laden massacred 58 foreigners and four Egyptians in Luxor. Some of the details of the killings were revolting.

But the Egyptian government of the time saw no political advantages in publicising the crime or in trying to link the terrorists with certain political parties in Egypt. The terrorist group in question was shunned by everyone, ended up apologising and soon disappeared. By 2000 Egyptian income from tourism was 4.3 billion dollars, twice as much as in 1995.

Today regimes throughout the world claim to see terrorism everywhere. So, when the Egyptair plane crashed in the Mediterranean in May this year (66 dead), everyone’s first thought was terrorism. In fact no group has claimed responsibility.

The word terrorist is suffering terrible inflation. The man who killed the British MP Jo Cox last month is not a terrorist. He is obviously out of his mind.

So is the man who shot kids for over an hour at a youth camp in Norway in June 2011, killing 69. The psychiatrists couldn’t decide if he is a paranoid schizophrenic or has a narcissistic personality disorder, but there’s no doubt that he is severely disturbed.

The definition

It’s worth remembering what terrorism really means:

“The use or threat of major physical violence against civilians to achieve political or religious ends.”

Just because someone says the motive is political doesn’t make it so. The Norwegian murderer said he wanted to highlight his solutions to Europe’s problems.

But most people see through this excuse, and see a lunatic who wanted to kill a lot of people. A sane person can usually distinguish between political or religious philosophy and the ramblings of the mentally ill.

But it’s getting harder, because use of the word terrorism has become even more widespread. Governments have started to label separatists, strikers, even journalists, as terrorists or terrorist sympathisers.

By doing so they sustain the public image of constant danger in their country. It is the very connection that the tourist industry would like to fade away.

It makes no sense to look for terrorism around every corner. If a country’s leaders don’t understand how many real terrorists there are, they can’t expect holidaymakers to know better.


Footnote. Abraham Pizam, Aliza Fleischer:  Severity versus Frequency of Acts of Terrorism, Journal of Travel Research, February 2002 vol. 40 no. 3, 337-339



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