Tourism in the shadow of terror

In the aftermath of a terrorist attack, communicating the message of business as usual brings back tourists. But what are the factors that influence tourists’ perceptions and the recovery of visitor numbers?

"Where next?”

That’s the question asked by civilians, terrorism experts and security forces in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, as rolling coverage brings images of chaos in cities around the globe.

(Main image: People attend a vigil and light candles in the center of Strasbourg for the victims of the November 2015 attacks in Paris / Photo: ThinkStock)

While the discussion in media and politics contributes to rather than counteracts a general sense of unease and paranoia, civilians and businesses have little choice but to continue as normal. However, the question of where next has a more immediate impact on the tourism industry.

As is often the advice, those not directly affected by these attacks continue with their lives and their businesses. There is one industry however that is significantly impacted by anxious risk perceptions: tourism.

Many cities rely on attracting visitors to stimulate their local economies. Furthermore the cross cultural exchange that goes hand-in-hand with tourism helps to quash fears and bridge the “us and them” divide that can be so devastating to society.

Terror and tourism

On November 13 last year, Paris suffered a series of coordinated terrorist attacks. Although France is the most visited country in the world, the number of visitors to the French capital has fallen since the attacks. Recent French government figures showed that while numbers were up in France in general in 2015, a drop of 15 per cent occurred in tourism for November and December in Paris.

This puts a dent in French foreign affairs minister Jean-Marc Ayrault’s wish to attract 100 million foreign tourists to France yearly from 2020.

Speaking to Communication Director, François Navarro, managing director Paris Region Tourist Board underlined the economic importance of tourism to the Paris region.

“According to our latest economic report there are 500,000 jobs related to the tourism industry, which is worth €21 million. We have an economic challenge and our objective of course is to attract people and get them to come to Paris.”

More recently, Brussels faced its own tragedy. Memories from the March 22 attacks are raw and the city’s authorities are still working to ensure the security of its citizens. For the short term at least it appears people are hesitant to visit the unofficial EU capital. 

According to Patrick Bontinck, CEO of the Visit Brussels tourism authority in an online video interview with uploaded on 1 April 2016, early figures showed a 50 per cent drop in hotel occupancy with the impacts being felt throughout Brussels and in other European capitals as well.

Indonesia attracts large numbers of visitors from the Asia-Pacific region, with tourism making up just below 10 per cent of the country’s GDP in 2015. However the country has also suffered from major acts of terrorism in recent times. The latest of these came in capital city Jakarta in January. In the early months of 2016, foreign tourist arrivals have fallen 17.4 per cent according to the Indonesian Central Bureau of Statistics. The traditional bump in numbers around the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations failed to come. In direct response to the attacks the Indonesian government ramped up security, deploying police officers and soldiers in Jakarta and another tourist hotspot, Bali.

It is too early to know how long visitors will stay away from these locations. However if we look to past examples, there appears to be signs of hope.

Road to recovery

Dr Yeganeh Morakabati, an expert in risk and tourism at Bournemouth University in the UK, explains that over a long time period people tend to forget about potential dangers, especially if a city experiences a one-off attack.

In her research Dr Morakabati examined the 9/11 attacks in New York, the Bali bombings in 2002 and the Mumbai attacks in 2008. Speaking to Communication Director, she outlines how the period of time for a recovery in visitor numbers has differed with each location.

“A time series analysis of international tourism arrivals to USA suggest full recovery occurred around January 2005”, she explains. “Bali was a different case as we have two major attacks, one in 2002 and one in 2005, as well as the SARS pandemic in 2003 and the 2004 tsunami in between. Taking all these into account, full recovery was somewhere around March to April 2006. Mumbai was quicker and it went back to where it might have been if an attack had not happened around February 2009.”

An important factor affecting the recovery period for visitor numbers is the sense of the stability and security of the country where an attack has taken place. For example, Turkey has suffered from a string of terrorist acts in the past year. The subsequent tense atmosphere and the Turkish travel ban on Russian citizens following the downing of a Russian warplane over Turkish territory have culminated in devastation to the country’s tourism industry. The Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism reported in February that the number of foreigners entering Turkey had fallen by just over 10 per cent from the previous year.

In contrast to Turkey’s current struggles, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) reported that levels of tourism recovered within weeks following the 2004 attacks on commuter trains in Madrid, which killed 191 people. According to the WTTC, London bombings in 2005 had no notable impact on arrivals to the UK.

Beyond the level of control and the sense of reassurance that is evident in destinations in developed economies, Dr Morakabati identifies social factors that can also affect travel choices. “Cultural, geographical and religious differences also influence the impact and the recovery. Those people with similar cultures and religions are more likely to rally around and support each other against what they perceive to be a common enemy,” she explains.

Tourists’ perceptions of the safety of post-attack locations is also related to media coverage, which can vary greatly depending on geography. For example, it has often been noted that coverage by western media of terrorist attacks in the west far overshadows its coverage of attacks elsewhere in the world.

"Perceptions of the safety of post-attack locations is also related to media coverage."

As Dr Morakabati explains, western media reflects their society by placing high value on lives and property, which can have a major effect on risk perceptions: “The media are significantly more reactive when the targets are western tourists. Not only can the framing of such events influence the traveller’s perception of safety, but also the frequency of dissemination of such news reinforces the memory and keeps the events fresh in their mind.”

It is this frequent media dissemination that has forced Paris to be proactive in managing the message around its city.

With the increased amount of state officers patrolling the city helping ensure a sense of stability, the city’s tourist board has taken a pragmatic approach to their communication by focusing on a return to normality and value for money for visitors. “One week after what happened in November everything was back to business,” François Navarro, of the Paris Region Tourist Board tells Communication Director. “Our objective is to deliver good prices to get people to come to Paris. So we have thousands of well-priced tickets from June to September.”

Social media strategies

Alongisde the role of traditional media, social media plays a part in the relationship between tourism and terror, as Dr Morakabati warns: “The media in the 21st century is 24/7 with the use of social media channels.  Where once people waited to hear or see the news at specific times, it is now constantly available online. It is amplified through social media and through user-generated comments. These all add to the profile of terrorist attacks and their consequences.”

However, social media can help as much as harm. François Navarro explains how a new social media campaign set up by the French tourist authority uses social media platforms to attract those who are still avoiding the city: “Even though it is difficult for us, there are thousands of tourists in Paris. We work with those in Paris and we ask them to be our ambassadors with pictures and selfies posted on social networks.” This social media campaign asks visitors to use the #ParisWeLoveYou hashtag when they post their pictures from the city, the results of which can be seen at

The #ParisWeLoveYou campaign invites visitors to share their own impressions of the city

However, the strategy of promoting a sense of normality by coopting tourists’ own experiences has its risks, as proven by the #CallBrussels campaign. Following the attack in Paris three phone booths were installed at tourist hotspots in Brussels. Those passing by could answer calls from foreign tourists to attest for the safety of visitors to the city. However, in the aftermath of the March attack the campaign was a source of malicious ridicule on social media. The official message has now shifted to the increased security measures in the city.  

“Coopting tourists’ own experiences has its risks.”

Having twice seen visitor numbers fall and recover in the last 15 years, Indonesia is an example of how a country can continue to promote itself above terror and fear. While a focus on state security was also called for directly following the tragic events in Jakarta in January, away from the scrutiny off the western media, Indonesia has directed the message on another course completely.

With the aim to increase tourism’s contribution to overall GDP to 15 per cent by 2019, the tourism ministry of Indonesia launched the Wonderful Indonesia campaign. Promoting the traditional culture and cuisine of the island state, the ministry hopes to convey the idea of a dream holiday to potential visitors from outside Southeast Asia.

Whichever strategy is taken, it is important that these campaigns are successful in once again attracting visitors to these locations despite the acts of terror they have suffered. Not only does tourism support local livelihoods, it can also quash fears of the other and drive understanding of other cultures, a message more important today than ever before.

Jan Wisniewski

Jan Wisniewski is an editor at Communication Director, under his role as an editorial and content manager at Quadriga Media. He works to ensure the Communication Director community has access to genuine insights into the world of corporate communications. He held previous assistant editorial roles at The Conversation Media Group and Street Press Australia.