August 1, 2016
Flight or Fight?
By Yeganeh Morakabati and John Fletcher
Associate Professor at Bournemouth University; Pro-Vice Chancellor of Research and Innovation at Bournemouth University.

When wealth dries up after terrorist attacks on tourists, locals who depend on tourism to earn a living sink deeper into poverty, and become even more vulnerable to radicalization.

Although the current rising trend in terrorist attacks is appalling in its barbarity and is totally alien to the Western world at which it is targeted, the battle being played out is not new.

The fight against Western ideology and influence, at least within parts of the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) region, has a pedigree dating back to the 11th century. The ideological battle took on a more sinister form in the mid-20th century with the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt and the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979.

The next chapter of growth in terrorism was 9/11, which was pivotal, bringing a step change in the horror of atrocities; claiming the lives of almost 3,000 people, injuring more than 6,000 and using commercial aircraft as terrorist weapons. Such events directed and inspired a growing number of terrorist groups across the MENA region, competing for the central stage, making some of them – such as  al-Qaida, the Taliban, Boko Haram and the Islamic State group – ‘brands of terror.’

Yet, it could be argued that these extremists were not suddenly created in a vacuum, but already existed and these events just brought them to the surface.

Like any other brand, publicity is the oxygen that fuels the fire of terrorist organizations, and tourists have become the soft targets, providing the fertile ground that raises their profile. To these groups, tourists are the enemy on their doorstep and easy prey. In many cases, tourists are seen as presenting a neo-colonialist symbol of Western society and Western lifestyles, so by attacking them, they see themselves as attacking the foundations of liberal democracy and Western society.

The media is also significantly more reactive when the targets are Western tourists, partly because they are Westerners, and partly because the West is home a number of the media giants.

To understand how tourists and markets respond to terrorism, researchers have attempted to understand the way that these attacks generate fear so that they can predict the impact on international travel behaviour.  It is important to be able to understand this, because tourism is big business. With 3.6 percent growth in 2015, the tourism industry is responsible for US$1.4 trillion of world trade, accounting for almost a third of total service exports, and it is growing faster than the global export of goods.

Although tourism has shown great resilience, the impact of 9/11 on the volume of tourist arrivals to the U.S. was unprecedented, and it took four years to recover from the attack. It is difficult to untangle the effect of the fear generated by the attack and the economic recession that followed in its wake.

The 2008 global financial crisis demonstrated how susceptible tourist activity is to economic downturns. But 9/11 also regionalised travel around the world, with people choosing to go on holiday closer to home.

The response to 9/11 was the ‘war on terror’ proclamation by the U.S., and tourists were thrust onto the frontline of that war by President Bush’s statement that all tourists were ‘ambassadors.’  In the wake of 9/11, world tourism was subjected to the Bali bombing of 2002, which impacted tourism in that region for around 15 months and, once the region started to recover, was followed by another attack in 2005, which again created a significant effect in the volume of arrivals and spending.

In spite of these events, Bali tourism started to show signs of recovery within the following year. However, over this period the world also witnessed terrorist attacks in Kenya (2002), Madrid (2004), London (2005) and Mumbai (2008).  Research shows that the attacks in the European capitals did not cause significant changes in the volume of tourists or their spending.

The recent terrorist attacks – in Tunisia, the downing of the Russian Charter flight in Egypt, at the Brussels Airport and in Nice – have several aspects in common. The perpetrators claimed to be religiously motivated, targeted civilians and aimed to maximise fatalities. There was a belief that a one-off terrorist attack was likely to have a short-term impact, and its nature would depend on the type, magnitude and frequency of attacks.

However, recent research suggests that the impact of terrorist attacks on the flow of international tourist arrivals could vary considerably. An attack could create a sudden fall, followed by a quick recovery; a sudden fall, followed by a gradual recovery; a sudden fall in the number of arrivals leading to a permanent reduction in tourist flows; a slowdown in the growth of arrivals; or no impact at all. In simple terms, the findings suggest that no two terrorist attacks leave the same ‘data fingerprint’ in the volume of arrivals.

The impact depends not only on the attack’s attributes, but also on the destination. Developing countries suffer greater than their industrialised counterparts, with the former suffering severe economic downturns compared to the effects on industrialised economies. This is because tourism often plays a pivotal role in developing economies, like Egypt and Tunisia, compared to France or Belgium; the lack of economic diversity in developing countries means that the downturn of the tourism industry and its effect on the agriculture, energy and transport sectors creates widespread economic harm.

Insecurity hinders tourism development and the lack of tourism development generates widespread insecurity through its economic pressures. Therefore, a downturn in tourism lowers income levels and exacerbates foreign exchange shortages, creating budget deficits for national governments that result in poorer service levels and support for those out of work and living in poverty. This downward economic spiral increases discontent, diminishes “hope,” generates resentment and creates an environment ripe for the recruitment of the disenfranchised youth into militant groups (fight) or migration (flight).

Indicative results suggest that the impact of a terrorist attack on tourist flows could be greater, when the religious platform used to motivate the attack is the primary religion of the destination, and is at odds with the religion of the bulk of tourists.

In 2015, Travelzoo found that 75 percent of British holidaymakers said they would avoid traveling to Muslim countries following the attack in Tunisia (based on a survey of 2,000 households). This result shows the importance of socio-cultural differences between the tourists and their host population in determining the impact of terrorist attacks. Religion creates a paramount identity and political ambivalence of religion can encourage the level of conflict and, consequently, heighten tourist fears, making the impacts greater.  This fear manifests in the search for alternative destinations, or staying at home when looking at discretionary travel.

Over the past 18 months, terrorist attacks have created a new chapter in this horror story. The attacks have spread outside the confines of conflict areas such as Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia to mainland Europe. This new phase presents a paradox. The danger here is that this new reality creates an upward spiral where terrorist groups have to constantly step up the horror factor of attacks in order to achieve their aims.

Targets are no longer confined to tourists enjoying their vacation in some exotic location; they are wherever there are crowds of people, tourists or locals. The perpetrators may not be terrorists avoiding detection as they enter the country’s borders, they may be the ‘neighbour’ that regularly walks down the street where the next attack may take place. The recent event in Nice bears witness to how unpredictable terrorist acts are and how difficult they are to prevent. This brings a new meaning to ‘living with the enemy’ and is a different world of terrorism.

The impact that this new form of terrorism will have on tourism destinations is very hard to predict.  While tourism activities in conflict areas of the Middle East and North Africa dry up like the desert sands, the tourism destinations in the ‘safe’ havens of Europe and other regions of the world become increasingly attractive as targets to the terrorist groups.

The fight against Western ideology that was evident in the 11th century, plays out today through acts of terrorists. Tourists have become the focal point of anger towards liberal societies by the radical groups in the MENA region. Tourism will continue, destinations of choice will change and when an attack occurs, at least tourists will be in an environment where they are able to call on a support system that they understand.

Yeganeh Morakabati and John FletcherDr Yeganeh Morakabati is an Associate Professor at Bournemouth University who specializes in the analysis of risk perceptions, terrorism and political conflict. She has written academic articles and book chapters on the impacts of terrorism, the migration crisis and the fundamental issues facing countries in the MENA region as they struggle for stability. She has conducted research in this area for organizations such as the United Nations and World Trade Organization. John Fletcher Is Pro-Vice Chancellor of Research and Innovation at Bournemouth University.  John has undertaken and completed economic impact and development models for more than 70 countries around the world and organizations including the UN, USAID, UNDP, WTO, and EU.