Travel as a ‘celebration of life’ is under threat, says UN tourism head
Militant attacks on beaches, museums or monuments could happen in any country but international tourism, and the economic benefits it offers developing countries, will suffer more if governments introduce travel restrictions that stifle peoples’ desire to visit other places, the head of the global tourist body says.
Despite headline-grabbing attacks from Paris to the Sinai, the number of international tourists rose by 4.4% worldwide in 2015 to a record 1.18 billion – the sixth consecutive year of above-average growth since the economic crisis of 2008, according to the Madrid-based UN World Tourism Organisation.
Growth of 4% is expected this year, but for UNWTO’s secretary general, Taleb Rifai, the biggest danger to an industry that accounts for one in 11 jobs could lie in kneejerk government reactions to attacks – rather than the attacks themselves.
“Our concern is not so much for the effect of security issues on the ground because we know these things can happen anywhere around the world. No country is immune,” the former Jordanian tourism minister said. His real worry is “panicky reactions” from governments.
“In Europe, we are seeing some closures of borders, checkpoints … some calls to revise the Schengen zone, which is the most important achievement that European societies have come to for a long time. In the US, we are seeing a call forbans on entries and some restrictions that are unprecedented,” he said.
“Any slowdown, any restriction on the flow of people mean loss of jobs, loss of income,” said Rifai, noting that tourism accounts for 9% of the world’s gross domestic product and 30% of trade in services. Tourism’s economic potential and its role as a “celebration of life” are why it is targeted, he said.
“Those forces of darkness, those terrorists … they know it hurts both economically and politically,” he said.
Tunisia has been particularly affected by attacks. The number of international visitors to Tunisia fell to 5.2 million last year, from 7 to 2 million in 2014, UNWTO said. Tourism arrivals to north Africa overall fell by 8%.
This week, Thomas Cook cancelled all British bookings to Tunisia until November following the worst social unrest in the country since the 2011 revolution. The company made its decision in response to Foreign Office advice against all but essential travel to Tunisia.
Sherine El Taraboulsi, a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute’s humanitarian policy group, said she noticed a decline in tourism when she stayed in Tunisia following an attack on the Bardo museum in March. There was another devastating attack, on a beach resort in Sousse, in June.
“Tourism is highly dependent on perceptions; not only the perceptions of the tourists, but the perceptions of the manpower within the industry. The general perception was … that they were not ready to receive tourists, they were very unsure about the measures in place,” she said, citing popular unease about how security forces were reacting to the militant threat.
After the 2011 uprising, there had been hopes the economy would pick up, with tourism one of the key drivers, she said. Now, mounting frustration and an unemployment rate of 15% threaten the fragile gains that followed the Arab spring.
The frustration was apparent when rioters and police clashed in the central town of Kasserine this month during protests over jobs. Last week, the government imposed a nationwide overnight curfew because of the unrest.
“My Tunisian friends tell me that it feels like 2011,” says Taraboulsi. “There isn’t a serious attempt to fuse life into an already dead economy … that has created a number of marginalised groups. The more young people are marginalised, the more likely they are to join Isis or other radical groups.” Tunisians make up the largest contingent of foreign fighters in Isis.
Another country grappling with the fallout from terrorism is Kenya. Visitor numbers dropped 12% in the first 11 months of last year to nearly 691,000, the Kenya tourism board said, after western governments issued travel warnings triggered by a spate of attacks by Somali militants over the past two years.
As part of a campaign to woo back visitors, tourism minister Najib Balala wentskydiving on the coast of the Indian Ocean this month. Balala told Reuters it would take two years for the sector to recover but said investments in security, as well as policies to cut costs and raise standards, are paying off.
Rifai said Kenya’s approach was positive. “They are doing it in such a way that [is] not so aggressive because you don’t want to embark on security measures that end up killing the very industry you are trying to protect.”
The wealth-creating potential of tourism is acknowledged in the sustainable development goals, the global blueprint for eradicating poverty and inequality that was adopted in September.
Rifai said the tourism industry in developing countries should receive more donor assistance: it gets 0.09% of international aid . “Tourism is not seen as an area that the donor community would like to help the developing world with … they miss the point: if they extend technical assistance to projects connected to tourism, they would be more effective in creating jobs, accelerating development, building infrastructure and so on,” said Rifai.
“We must share our experiences. It’s the only way to deal with these forces of darkness because the alternative is to panic and start taking measures that end up achieving exactly what they want to achieve … They want us to panic, and close our borders, and hate each other. We should never allow them to do this.”