Terror threat not halting tourism

Last year, tourism was up 50 percent in Bali and 20 percent in Morocco, while Sharm el-Sheikh is rebounding.

Just hours after three massive bombs ripped through the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on July 23, Jonathan Gatland, a British doctor on vacation with his three children stood defiant. He would not go home and he would return again. "Fear is not going to stop me," he said simply.

It was once widely held that terrorism devastated tourism. But as travelers grow accustomed to a new era in which suicide bombers can strike anywhere, tourists are proving increasingly resilient.

Tourist-driven economies, once leveled for months or even years after tragedies, are bouncing back much more quickly than in the past.

'Resilient creatures'

For those like Dr. Gatland, it is a way to make a stand against terrorism. For many others, however, it is simply a growing acceptance that terrorism can strike anytime and anywhere.

As the Madrid and London bombings demonstrated, Western travelers are no safer on their morning commute than they are at a Middle Eastern resort.

"Human beings are incredibly resilient creatures; we're very adaptable and we build tolerances," says Dr. C. Scott Saunders, director of the UCLA Trauma Psychiatry Service.

When Islamic militants gunned down 58 tourists at a Pharaonic temple in Luxor in 1997, Egypt's tourist industry was decimated. Superstitious shopkeepers, who struggled to put food on the table following the attacks, still speak of "the Luxor effect" in whispers.

Tourism revenues dropped by 50 percent, and it took nearly two years for tourists to begin returning to Egypt in pre-Luxor numbers.

Seven years later, however, tourism was barely affected after three car bombs tore into the Taba Hilton and two campgrounds farther south on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

In the six months following the Taba bombings, whichkilled 34 people, there was a 15 percent increase in tourist visits over the same period in 2004.

Tourism officials are similarly optimistic that tourism will bounce back following the Sharm el-Sheikh bombings, the deadliest terrorist attack in Egypt's history. The official figure is 64 fatalities, but other sources report a toll of at least 88.

Beaches in Sharm are still packed with tourists, and hotels are reporting 60 percent occupancy. While that is a significant decrease from the no-vacancy signs hanging outside many hotels before the bombings, tour operators are taking heart.

"We had three new bookings for Sharm el-Sheikh two days after the attacks," says Pamela Lassers, spokeswoman for Abercrombie & Kent, an upscale travel agency in Oak Brook, Ill. "One client made a point of saying it was their way of making a stand against the terrorists. They feel very strongly that choosing not to travel is like letting the terrorists win."

It's a phenomenon that is repeating itself around the globe, from Indonesia to Morocco to Turkey. Since April 30, three bombs have exploded in Turkish resort towns on the Aegean Sea. Six people were killed and 50 injured in the blasts. But hotels in Kusadasi, the target of two of the three bombs, reported 90 percent occupancy rates this past week, just two weeks after the last bomb exploded.

"The hotels are full, and we are still taking reservations," says Begum Gencer, a partner with Otti Travel Agents in Kusadasi. "It didn't really affect us."

The bombings of two synagogues, the British Consulate, and the HSBC Bank in Istanbul in November 2003 caused tourism to drop off by about 40 percent. Three months later, however, tourism had made a full recovery, according to travel agents. And it grew by 25 percent in 2004.

A major rebound for Bali

Similarly, Bali's beaches and temples were all but abandoned by tourists in the immediate aftermath of the Islamist terrorist attacks on Oct. 12, 2002. Two nightclubs in Bali's teeming Kuta Beach were hit by three nearly simultaneous bombs, killing more than 200 people, most of them Australians.

The owners of posh resorts wondered if they'd have to close and the cabdrivers, laundresses, and waiters at the bottom end of the tourist economy wondered how they'd feed their families.

An attack on that scale in the 1990s would probably have shaken local tourism to its core, and with international travelers already nervous after 9/11, the people of Bali prepared for the worst. But Bali's nightmare scenario never materialized. While tourism dropped by 20 percent in 2003, it rose by 50 percent in 2004, to a new record of 1.5 million foreign tourists. This year, Bali is on track for another record and property prices are also at record highs.

Nowhere have tourists' increasingly thick skins been more evident than in Morocco. Tourism decreased by 80 percent during and after the first Gulf War, as skittish tourists, fearing growing regional instability, avoided the Middle East. Ten years later, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, caused just a 20 percent decrease.

By May 2003, when militants killed 41 people in a string of attacks in central Casablanca, tourists had so inured themselves to terror shocks that tourism actually grew by 20 percent in the year after the attacks.

"It's a very different world from 10 years ago," says Stephen Newbigging, a senior manager with Thomas Cook, an international travel agent. "When these kinds of things used to happen, you wouldn't see anybody in the country."

Defiant tourists willing to visit countries despite terrorist attacks may prove to be a real weapon in the fight against terrorism, adds Saunders, the psychiatrist from UCLA.

"This blunts some of the terror and some of the interests that the terrorists have," he explains. "Their agenda is to disrupt things like tourism. If they're not doing that, maybe they'll do it less."

Summer Said in Sharm el-Sheikh contributed to this story.

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