A visiting family walks through an open air market in Cairo. (Photo: Edwin Remsberg/Getty Images)
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Terrorism Is Killing Tourism

The global travel map has been reshaped following attacks in France, Egypt, Turkey, and other popular destinations.
Dec 9, 2016· 8 MIN READ
Hisham Allam's investigations have led to six prosecutions in Egypt. A founder of the newspaper El Watan, he is an award-winning member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

SHARM EL SHEIKH, Egypt—Sitting in his shop in one of the bazaars in this city of picturesque beaches, nightclubs, and resorts, Mounir Ayyad kills time day after day by rearranging pharaonic statues and smoking while looking out at a street vacant of pedestrians.

Ayyad, 36, has owned his shop for five years, since he quit his job at a hotel in Jordan. He usually visits family in Upper Egypt every three months and stops over in Cairo on his way back to acquire goods.

That changed after a bomb exploded on Metrojet Flight 9268, a chartered flight carrying 217 passengers and seven crew, minutes after takeoff from Sharm el Sheikh airport on Oct. 31, 2015. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.

Before the Russian jet crash, the situation for businesspeople like Ayyad was a different story, he said. Business wasn’t thriving, but he could make a living. “There were some sales operations, and some tourists at least were window-shopping,...but it was not completely empty.”

Today, Ayyad barely covers rent on his shop. He hasn’t bought any inventory all year.

“I can no longer afford my household expenses nor my three children’s,” he said on a warmer-than-usual day last fall. “My father covers their expenses instead during this rough patch.”

Hundreds of lives have been claimed over the past year in terrorist attacks taking place in cities across the globe—from a Paris theater to an Orlando, Florida, nightclub, from Brussels’ and Istanbul’s airports to a bakery in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

A young tourist rides a camel on the beach at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh. (Photo: Getty Images)

The attacks have reshaped the global tourism map and blown the primary source of income for many working in the tourism industry. While visits to Paris, scene of a series of devastating terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016, have fallen, cities outside Europe such as Bangkok and Dubai, UAE, have seen significant increases in the number of international tourists since 2014, according to MasterCard’s 2016 Global Destination Cities Index.

Sharm el Sheikh, sometimes called the “city of peace,” has long been a favored beach holiday destination for Europeans. Located on the Red Sea shore 150 miles southeast of Cairo, it once attracted millions of tourists annually, even during the country’s politically turbulent times. In 2015, four years after a popular uprising forced the resignation of the despot Hosni Mubarak and two years after a military coup deposed the first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, some 9.3 million tourists arrived in Egypt, sparking $6.1 billion in economic activity, according to the Ministry of Tourism. With 12.6 percent of the country’s workforce directly employed in tourism, the drop since the Metrojet attack has taken its toll on the incomes of millions of Egyptians like Ayyad.

Omayma El-Husseiny, spokesperson for the Ministry of Tourism, said Egypt has lost visitors from two of its most important tourism markets, Russia and the U.K. The two countries accounted for 40 percent of all tourism traffic in 2014, falling to 5 percent of visitors in 2015 as Russia decided to suspend all flights to Egypt following the Metrojet crash and British Airways and other U.K.-based airlines suspended service to Sharm el Sheikh. The numbers for 2016 will come in even lower, according to El-Husseiny, though several Russian delegations have visited Cairo International Airport to assess its security measures in the last few months. The historical monuments of Cairo and Alexandria are unique, but El-Husseiny said “beach tourism is more dominant in the Egyptian tourism landscape, compared to cultural tourism, and witnessed a drastic drop after the travel ban” because for Britons and Russians looking to spend some time in the sun, other choices abound.

The tourism recession in Egypt has been reflected in at least 70 enmeshed sectors—including aviation, hotels, and investment—representing 11.5 percent of GDP and 11.7 percent of the foreign exchange, according to tourism ministry figures. Hotel occupancy rates in Sharm el Sheikh’s region fell from 48.3 percent in 2015 to 22.5 percent through August of this year, El-Husseiny said.

Asmar Khalilova estimates that bookings at the Istanbul luxury hotel where she works as a guest relations specialist have fallen 20 percent since a wave of terrorist bombings hit the city. (Photo: Courtesy Asmar Khalilova)

The reduction in the amount of hard currency entering the country has contributed to a collapse of the Egyptian pound on the currency black market and was a contributing factor in Egypt’s decision to devalue its currency in November to qualify for a package of loans from the International Monetary Fund. The devaluing wiped out a third of Egyptians’ savings overnight. With the government’s hard currency reserves having fallen by more than half since the 2011 revolution, banks are unable to offer attractive loans to importers, which then look to the black market for money to invest, putting further downward pressure on the pound and raising the price of imported goods. The cost of many products, including some foods, has risen 60 percent since May. Sahar Samir, a dentist, has found that the cost of equipment has doubled in just the last few weeks. “I had to increase my fees for dental surgeries 80 percent, as all the tools are imported,” she said. When she went to buy an air conditioner for her private clinic, it was 8,000 Egyptian pounds, up from 4,500 Egyptian pounds last summer.

Mohamed Fayyad, owner of one of the biggest diving centers in Sharm el Sheikh, Milia Sinai, had to downsize the number of instructors he employed from 70 to one after he became unable to pay their salaries.

“I used to receive 100 customers every day; now I barely receive nine a week,” Fayyad said. “I had to acquire a loan to pay some bills and cover my family’s expenses.”

Sharm el Sheikh has about 40 diving centers today, down from 90 in 2013. Fayyad said that many foreigners who owned diving centers have shuttered them and returned to their home countries. “The losses were much bigger than our capacity to comprehend it,” he said. “I am hopeful that the tourism sector will recover in the upcoming winter; otherwise we will be in trouble.”

The scenes of empty beaches and restaurants have become familiar in other cities once bustling with tourists.

Turkey brings together a wide range of cultures and once attracted a diverse mix of tourists every season. But its open border with war-torn Syria and increasing domestic political and security turmoil, culminating with a failed coup attempt in July, has severely affected its tourism sector.

Tourists visit the beach town of Sharm el Sheikh. (Photo: Colin Sinclair/Getty Images)

The number of foreign visitors fell from 36.3 million in 2015 to 3.1 million through August of this year, according to the tourism ministry. It will likely turn out that 2016 is the worst year in Turkish tourism history.

Russians were among the top foreign visitors to Turkey, with more than 3 million visits in 2014 and 2015. So far in 2016, only 336,165 have arrived, triggered by a Russian ban on travel to the country issued in November 2015, after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on a mission against the Islamic State and other militants in northern Syria. (The ban was lifted in July.) Visits from the U.K. and Germany have also fallen.

Ashraf al-Noweihy, 32, left Egypt for Istanbul a few months before the 2011 revolution. Accompanied by his wife and four-year-old son, he hoped to kick-start a career in tourism after spending many years working as a sales manager at his family’s textile company. Supported by his meager savings, al-Noweihy opened a travel agency. “During the first four years, I made seven times what I used to make in Egypt,” he said.

But an unprecedented wave of terrorist bombings over the past two years signaled a profound change in al-Noweihy’s business and the millions of others in tourism, which represents 8.2 percent of Turkey’s workforce.

Alain Doff has had to seek new employment because business at the tourism agencies where he worked as a consultant fell in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice. (Photo: Courtesy Alain Doff)

“I used to receive 10 booking requests every day for domestic tours or car rentals, but after the Ankara attack of October 2015, the cancellation percentage reached 80 percent,” al-Noweihy said.

He shut down the agency, laying off all his employees, and sold the car he rented to tourists. He has found work as a graphic designer at an advertising agency, but it’s not as lucrative as his old business—just $1,500 a month working 12-hour days. His business used to bring in $5,000 a month.

Official data on hotel occupancy has not been updated since 2013, but Asmar Khalilova, a guest relations specialist at one of the luxury hotels in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district (itself struck by a suicide bombing in January in which 13 were killed, all of them foreigners), estimates that occupancy at her hotel has fallen to 20 percent over the past two years.

Khalilova, 29, left her home in Azerbaijan six years ago to study hospitality in Cyprus. Now she works in the heart of Istanbul surrounded by mosques, monuments, and shrines.

I used to receive 100 customers every day; now I barely receive nine a week. The losses were much bigger than our capacity to comprehend it.

Mohamed Fayyad, owner of a diving center in Sharm el Sheikh

“The hotel had to downsize half the number of employees, and we had to reduce the room rates from 250 euros to 90 euros per night,” she said. Commissions the remaining workers once received from shops they recommend to hotel guests have dropped.

The long lines for tickets to tourist sites are gone, Khalilova said. Citizens and Syrian refugees are virtually the only ones seen strolling around once busy districts. Apart from the security situation, the influx of 800,000 Syrian refugees has flooded the market for jobs and apartments.

Mohamed Selo moved from Syria to Turkey in 2002, long before the civil war started. Four years after relocating he began work as an operations manager for a major tourism company. Salaries have been delayed frequently over the past year, he said. Employees have been laid off and salaries and benefits cut.

“When I learned the company was about to reduce my salary of $1,500 per month, I resigned,” Selo said.

Mohamed Selo quit his job at a tourism company in Turkey after learning his salary would be cut. (Photo: Courtesy Mohamed Selo)

With an estimated 2 million workers in the tourism and related industries, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, France's tourism sector has also been damaged by terrorist attacks. Hotel stays by international visitors to the Île-de-France region, which includes Paris, are down 11.5 percent through July of this year, according to the state tourism board. Matthias Fekl, secretary of state for tourism, told Le Journal du Dimanche that the biggest decline has been among high-spending travelers from wealthy nations.

Alain Doff, 58, worked as a coordinator and consultant for tourism agencies in Paris but has had to find a new job after attacks in February and November 2015 and July 2016 killed hundreds of French citizens and tourists.

Doff specialized in musical tourism, providing services for high school and university bands, mostly from North America, touring France. “There were 17 groups lined up to visit France in 2016. After the terror attacks, it went down to six. I have six groups confirmed for 2017 and a few requests for 2018,” Doff said.

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Doff said even relatively obscure destinations have been affected. In Normandy, an attack against an elderly priest in a Catholic church in July has made it difficult for him to book tours in what had been one of his favorite parts of the country.

Other areas have seen a rise in tourist visits as the more popular areas are abandoned. Quiet landscapes are viewed as a safe alternative to the big city.

In Serre Chevalier in the French Alps, Cristiano Ferro, 67, owns a delicatessen shop that carries local and Italian food. Ferro’s family also rents houses for tourists in a nearby valley.

His daughter, Julia Suez, said, “We did not make any profits in July, but August, right after the Nice attacks, was the best month since the shop opened 20 years ago.”

According to Ferro, most people who used to visit Côte d’Azur in summer have gone instead to the mountains.

Ferro’s wife noticed that some visitors, who would typically spend two weeks of their vacation by the sea and one in the mountains, decided this year to spend all three weeks in the Alps.

Doff might have lost most of his expected clients in 2016, but he continues to seek better opportunities. He and his two young girls have had to leave their apartment and move to a more affordable home. He said he has been working as a tour guide for the past eight months in Paris, but as the weather started to get cold, he found a job teaching English to theater students.

“I don’t have a crystal ball, and I can’t expect when the better times are coming,” Doff said. “As long as I have food on my table and a roof over my head, we can survive.”