The recent attack by terrorists affiliated to ISIS (Islamic State of Syria and Iraq) in Paris, the subsequent sieges in Brussels, the shooting down of a Russian commercial airliner over Egypt and the Mali hotel attack, have changed the concept of what is a safe tourist destination. These attacks have been horrific and all indications are that they are not likely to stop in the foreseeable future. Whether you are attending a sports match, a theatre production, or having a meal in a restaurant, flying in an aircraft or sleeping in your hotel – for these terrorists it does not really matter. Traditionally, an unsafe destination was branded as one where there is a probability of being robbed, mugged and in utmost cases, hurt in some way. This has now changed since traditional safe destinations are not that safe any more and, in fact, in these instances it is not a case of taking money or jewellery, but rather a case of taking as many lives as possible. The influx of Syrian refugees to European safe havens with the corresponding reports that some ISIS militants use these humanitarian efforts as a gateway into Europe has tourists worried. It is also evident that countries engaging ISIS on the battlefront as well as countries condemning ISIS, make themselves, and more specifically their civilians, targets for retribution.
What does this mean for us living in the southern part of Africa? History has shown us that, in the past, travel to South Africa has increased during these troubled times. We know that the attacks of 911 in America, the killing of tourists in Egypt, the bombings in Bali and Thailand have all benefited tourism flows to South Africa. We also know that the recovery in bed occupancy rates of hotels differs from attack to attack or country to country. The recovery rate from the 1995 Paris attack took nine to 12 months and eight people were killed. After the New York attacks, where more than 3 000 people were killed, recovery took four years before foreign travel to that city normalised. In London (2005), where 52 people were killed, it took nine months for things to normalise. After the Paris January 2015 attacks, where 17 people were killed, it took five months for one of the key markets, namely Americans, to return. Therefore, I predict that we are most probably going to see an increase of travel to South Africa and other developing countries over the next couple of months. And even though the perception of South Africa as being an unsafe destination exists, most tourists leaving South Africa have not experienced crime, but rather memorable experiences. South African Tourism surveys support this notion, as well as research conducted by TREES (Tourism Research in Economic Environs and Society) at the North-West University Potchefstroom Campus.
We are going to see that tourism patterns are changing. Paris suffered 30% to 40% immediate cancellations. If attacks on the European continent continue, we are going to see the emergence of previously stagnant tourism markets. Research has shown that one of the dominant factors that contribute to the choosing of a tourism destination is a country’s safety and stability. Do tourists still see France, specifically Paris, as such, taking into consideration that this great city experienced two horrific attacks in the space of ten months? With the number of refugees in Germany, will tourists still perceive this country as fitting the prerequisite bill? I am not sure, but tourists will think twice.
The tourism industry will have to adapt to the current state of affairs. Its survival and long-term prosperity depend on it. Travel and marketing agencies and the respective countries will have to start marketing themselves in such a manner that takes this global threat into account. However, it is imperative that ethics and accountability towards tourists are taken into account. Thanks to mass media, especially social media, we are living in a world where the fragility of the fabric that holds us together is more evident than ever. Fear breads contempt and vice versa. We see that when citizens lash out in frustration over attacks in other countries. We also see these tools unite people across borders, across oceans and across ethnic lines. Honesty and temperance within the industry are more important than ever.
It is imperative that the relevant tourism role players understand this. Ours is a brittle industry, one very susceptible to a multitude of influences. If consumers lose faith in one, they are bound to lose faith in others. This will affect us all. ISIS has transformed the global landscape in numerous ways. I do not know when we will truly be able to understand the after effects of their two years of terror thus far.