Turkey, Egypt, and Tunisia have all been devastated by terror attacks in recent years and they are all well down on their previous highs. The reluctance of tourists to visit is having unintended consequences while other destinations such as Barcelona are experiencing a boom.
One week before the UK Prime Minister triggered her country’s departure from the European Union, and less than two weeks before our inaugural Skift Forum Europe, we launched a series of four stories devoted to Resetting Transatlantic Travel.
One of our 2017 Megatrends called this year one of reckoning for European tourism. With the pending departure of the UK from the EU, the growth of low-cost carriers like Norwegian Air, multiple violent acts in major European cities, and the rise of neo-isolationism in the United States and some European countries, it’s indeed a year of large-scale shifts for the most popular region in the world for tourism.
Our third story looks at how violence in and around Europe is changing the market and the impact it is having on certain countries.
When Nick Wrightman, a tour operator with almost 30 years of experience in Turkey was travelling through the southern city of Marmaris last year, he was struck by how few people there were.
The area enjoys a hot Mediterranean climate, has plenty of hotels, and is a relatively good value: It should have been heaving with tourists from all over Europe. The same pattern could be seen all over the country – 2016 was a very, very bad year for tourism in Turkey.
“We’ve got properties in the Bozburun Peninsula [and] you sometimes have to go through Marmaris to get to it. That’s why I noticed that it was much quieter last year,” he said.
Turkey is in the middle of a tourism slump. According to official figures from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the number of foreign visitors fell by 30 percent to 25.4 million. The decline can largely be explained by violence and other geopolitical factors. A series of attacks — some of which have killed tourists — over the past couple of years have put off many people about going to the country.
Turkey is not alone in this respect. Countries popular with tourists such as Egypt and Tunisia have been targeted as have European cities such as Paris, London, and Berlin. Fear and uncertainty are reshaping the landscape, at least on a temporary basis, which is turning some places into ghost towns, while others are dealing with altogether different consequences.
Overtourism in action
The Spanish city of Barcelona is suffering a very different problem than Marmaris, Turkey. Cheap flights and the total package of beaches, mountains and culture have helped it become one of Europe’s tourism hotspots. This winning combination resulted in 9.1 million tourists staying in the city’s hotels in 2016 – a 9.2 percent increase on the previous year.
In the peak summer months La Rambla, the 1.2 kilometer thoroughfare that runs all the way to the sea, is packed from morning well into the evening with bars and restaurants selling overpriced sangria to tourists happy to be part of the crowd.
“In terms of tourists, I think in Barcelona, for the last three years we have had a new record every year,” said Guillermo Gaspart, the founder of micro hotel stay company ByHours, which is based in the city.
The statistical increase is also born out in Gaspart’s own experience.
“It’s more busy than usual but at the same time if you are walking around La Rambla today you can see for example that there are a lot of police. Even the though we haven’t received any kind of terrorist attack, we are at the maximum alert here in Barcelona.”
Gaspart calls some of tourists “borrowed,” in the sense that they might not have come to Barcelona had it not been for problems elsewhere.
Most other cities can only look on enviously at Barcelona’s ability to keep on drawing the crowds and, although we can’t know the motivations of each individual tourist, it seems likely to have benefited from the reluctance of some to travel to areas that have experienced violent attacks in the recent past.
But this continuing popularity is causing overtourism problems in Barcelona.
“Every day this discussion is bigger in Barcelona between locals and people doing business with tourists… because it’s not only the hotels… it’s taxis, shops, it’s everything that’s taking advantage of tourists,” Gaspart said.
Although the city obviously benefits from the spending that comes from millions of foreign tourists, the question of how it is managed has become a huge issue.
Around 18 months ago a group of neighbourhood associations came together to form the Assemblea de Barris per un Turisme Sostenible (ABTS) to facilitate the change they thought was necessary.
“What we do is mainly we criticize and denounce and try to find and put on the table alternatives to the touristic model we have in the city right now and [that we’ve had] for a long time,” said Daniel Pardo a member of the organization..
For the ABTS it’s not simply the number of tourists, it’s the “conflicts created by mass tourism” in neighbourhoods across the city. Residents are being displaced by hotels and alternative accommodation providers. The shops that may be more use to locals are being swapped for ones aimed at tourists, and these new stores “are obviously useless for everyday life,” Pardo said.
There’s also the problem of what to do with waste from this mass consumption.
The protests earlier this year and the general movement is not a vendetta against tourists but part of a bigger issue.
“This is something that is not usually well understood by some media, which is the conflict is not neighbours/tourists it is city/tourism industry and it is a conflict between public interest and private interests,” he said.
At the moment the associations have the support of the city’s mayor, Ada Colau, who doesn’t want the city to become a cheap souvenir shop aimed just at tourists. She is driving a campaign to ensure that the money raised from tourism actually benefits locals.
The €1.2 million ($1.3 million) dividend from Barcelona’s tourism tax is being used to lay on extra buses during the busy summer months and improvements will also be made to squares in Gràcia and the Collserola Natural Park.
Not everyone in Spain is keen to talk up the problems associated with overtourism.
The country’s tourism minister Álvaro Nadal referred it it as “tourismphobia” and said it was only found in two places: the Balearic Islands and Barcelona.
“I think that Spain has always been a very open country, let me say this to you. We always pride ourselves on being good hoists. That’s why tourism is so important in Spain, not only because our supply has quality and our prices are very good… but also because in the mood of the people is this openness to all foreigners,” he said.
“So I would say that I don’t feel right thinking about this phenomenon of tourismphobia I think its something that should go down. I hope this is more or less something that will pass over with time. But in the meantime we have to work in order to make more attractive the idea of tourism. “
Spain’s popularity is nothing new. Northern Europeans have been flocking to the Mediterranean coast since the 1950s – it is just that it in recent years it had more competition. But violent attacks elsewhere have driven up the demand.
Violent attacks and the wall-to-all news coverage that invariably follows — typically labeling them as terrorism when they hit Europeans or Americans — have dealt a brutal blow to the tourism industries of many countries in and around North Africa and the Middle East.
Despite the worries associated with the Arab Spring, which started in Tunisia in late 2010, the country was steadily growing its tourism industry by offering a cheaper alternative to Southern European destinations.
French, Germans, Italians and British travelers were flocking to its beaches in increasing numbers. Two attacks — one at a museum and one at a beach — in the space of just over three months in 2015 killed 60 people, most of whom were tourists. Following the second in Sousse, tour operators decided they couldn’t take the risk anymore and largely pulled the plug.
The latest government figures show that between January and September last year Tunisia booked $750 million in tourism receipts, down 8.4 percent on the previous year and 34.1 percent on 2014.
Although arrival numbers have risen slightly, the total is still down on previous years. Things are even worse for Turkey and Egypt, both of which were reliant on European tourists.
According to Euromonitor International, arrivals (not just Europeans) are down year-on-year in both Turkey and Egypt and although Tunisia has bounced back slightly, its 2016 total is way down on 2013.
“It’s well-documented that there is just obviously for mostly geopolitical [and] terrorism reasons there are countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey which have been hard hit. And obviously good alternatives especially for Europeans who go to these countries is to go to other countries, which offer a similar product especially Spain, that’s performed very well because it offers [a] similar relatively cheap beach destination experience. Spain, Italy, Greece have been performing relatively well,” said Wouter Geerts, senior travel analyst at Euromonitor.
Not only has Egypt suffered from tourists shunning its Red Sea beach resorts but cultural tourism to Cairo and Nile cruising have also declined.
The suspected bombing of Metrojet Flight 9268 in October 2015 led many European governments to ban flights from Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. Gradually these were lifted with only two countries retaining the ban to this day. One of these is Russia, where the majority of the 224 passengers killed were from, the other is the UK. There is no ban on travel to Cairo and Luxor in the UK but the perception because of the headlines generated by the Sharm el Sheikh ban is that the country is unsafe.
Across Europe there is no coordinated approach to deciding if a country is safe for tourists to visit. That’s why occasionally you get the seemingly contradictory approach taken by a pan-European company like TUI Group, which may offer holidays from certain countries but not others. This is normally because insurance policies are voided if a country’s government says it is unsafe to travel.
Philip Breckner, is the commercial director at small specialist tour operator Discover Egypt, and he believes the country’s reputation at least in the UK is being tarnished by the flight plan to Sharm el Sheikh.
“We get people that call up and say ‘are the Nile cruises operating or have they started operating again’ and we say ‘well they’ve never stopped operating’,” he said.
Brits and Russians might be absent but it is not all bad news, according to Breckner.
“Egypt has been booming in the last few months with tourism from other counties primarily from the east: China, India [as well as] some other European countries, all of which have reintroduced tourism to Sharm el Sheikh.
“On the Nile cruise that we operate there are weekly and regular American groups on board. Usually the Americans are deterred by these things but they’re still traveling.”
It isn’t just counties in the Middle East and North Africa that have had their tourism industries devastated by violence targeted for maximum media impact. Several European cities have suffered their own attacks in recent years.
France has been hit multiple times, most notably with the coordinated strikes in November 2015, which left 130 people dead, including 89 at the Bataclan theatre, while more than 80 people were killed in an attack in Nice in July 2016. Brussels and most recently London have suffered too.
According to hotel research company STR, each market has been affected differently and the level of subsequent disruption largely comes from the severity of the attack.
“We’re seeing now that the way a hotel market reacts to an attack really does depend on the severity,” said Thomas Emanuel, STR’s director of business development. “Of course, any time innocent lives are lost or people are injured, it’s tragic. But this most recent attack in London and even the December attack in Berlin have not had much of an impact on hotel performance.
“When there is a larger number of casualties, as was the case in Nice, Brussels and Paris over the past two years, it takes a longer duration without additional incidents for tourism confidence to grow. This is also what we’ve noticed in Istanbul, as it remains to be seen when the market will be deemed a safe destination again.”
Violence is an issue across Europe but historically it is at a lower level than through much of the 20th century. The difference is perhaps that the targets have changed and that 24-hour rolling news coverage as well as social media manage to magnify everything.
“It’s not specifically going after tourists but just places where tourists are likely to be. So places like transport hubs, airports [like in the] Brussels attack. Again where tourists are moving through, although they aren’t a specific target…” said Jesper Cullen, a senior analyst covering Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa at Risk Advisory Group.
What happens next?
Europeans, especially those in the north of the continent, are loath to give up their annual two weeks in the sun. What violence and other geopolitical problems do, is cause a recalibration with tour operators — and subsequently tourists — moving elsewhere.
The problem for Turkey, Tunisia, and Egypt is exacerbated by the fact that the issues, however old, are still getting an airing.
The beach attack in Tunisia, which took place in 2015, was in the news again during a long-running inquest into the deaths of the thirty Britons killed. The country is effectively still a no-go zone because of advice from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Egypt too still has its problems. Israeli authorities warned of a possible attack on tourists over the Passover holiday just last month. Turkey’s problem is slightly different, stemming instead from the growing power of President Erdogan, in what seems to be an increasingly divided country.
“The attacks that are happening in Turkey have definitely had an impact and you also had the coup and we’ll have to see how the referendum, that Erdogan just won, if that’s going to have any impact on how the country’s being governed and ruled and if that has on impact on how open it is to tourism,” said Euromonitor’s Geerts.
“But its likely that Turkey remains open for tourism because it is a very important part of their economy and the question is just how well they are responding to the attacks that have been happening and also the question especially with Turkey is how do people perceive the attacks.
“And is there a case especially with Turkey where people are getting used to them a bit more and it is becoming part of the decision making process when you decide to go to Turkey that you know that there are attacks but that those attacks tend to be in the major cities and the beach resorts might be relatively safer and therefore you might still be able to go to say Antalya, Alanya places like that.”
In Europe the vacation season is still young with most people, not heading off until June, July and Augusts and Wrightman remains hopeful that there could be a recovery.
His own business, The Discerning Collection, which focuses on the upmarket end of travel, is on a par with last year but that is still down on previous highs.
“I think it’s going to be slightly better this year than last year. I can see what Thomas Cook and Jet2 are doing purely by the number of aircraft they’ve got going into Dalaman so thats a good indication, the same with Monarch. I can only judge that by the number of aircraft going and because they’re quite busy.
“So if you look now actually at trying to get a high season flight to Dalaman for example, [it’s] quite expensive. So it seems to have sold. I suspect and I’m pretty sure from my bookings alone that it’s going to be busier than last year.”
This is the third in a series of stories called Resetting Transatlantic Travel. Articles include:
Photo credit: French riot police patrol on the Champs Elysees boulevard, with the Arc de Triomphe in background, in Paris, whose tourism suffered after terror attacks. Christophe Ena / Associated Press