Trouble in Paradise Tourism in the Age of Terrorism
Terrorism is making life difficult for many vacation destinations, with European travelers choosing holidays closer to home. The travel industry is fundamentally changing as a result and many once popular places are facing ruin. By SPIEGEL Staff
He quickly performed yet another inspection of the surveillance cameras, got an update on the status of maintenance work being performed on the bomb detector and went over his calculations on the future strength of his team of guards for the umpteenth time. Now all security expert Mohab Bakr needs is his cigarettes, then he'll be ready for his most important appointment of the day, maybe even of the season: the security meeting with the managers of the Egypt's seaside resort Taba Heights. Bakr is in charge of security.
His senior-most supervisor, "Mister Jokim," will also be at today's meeting. His real name is Joachim Schmitt, the German vice president of hotels and resorts for the Orascom Group, which owns Taba Heights. The international corporation operates 25 locations with nearly 15,000 beds between the Nile and Red Sea, but business has seen better days. The unrest following Hosni Mubarak's deposition in 2011 along with Islamist terrorism have taken their toll on the Swiss-based company's share price, which has fallen from 150 Swiss francs to below 10. "Mister Jokim" has come to Taba to talk about the security situation -- security, in these trying times, has become an invaluable commodity.
Bakr, a bulky man in his early 50s, wears a dark mustache, light linen trousers and a blue and white plaid shirt. When Bakr makes the rounds inspecting the resort, he blends right in among the guests. But now he's back in his office, situated directly above the resort's central laundromat at the far edge of the complex, talking about how he protects the tourists.
Bakr's greatest wish is that visitors feel safe again in Egypt. He wants to see the French, Swiss and German tourists return to the hotels, the coral reefs and the deep blue sea.
The area Bakr oversees is enormous. At 4 million square meters, or 43 million square feet, is about as big as 616 football fields. Three security perimeters encircle the resort village, which has its own golf course, shopping center and clinic. The main road, which continues on to the Egyptian-Israeli border town of Taba, is secured by military outposts fortified with machine guns and sandbags. The main entrance to the resort is guarded by police and Bakr's security team, a force of around 100 men. The bottom of every approaching vehicle is inspected with mirrors and sniffed by bomb dogs. The guards make no exceptions, not even for the Peugeot of "General Mohab," as they call Bakr.
The name comes from Bakr's former life, back when he was a brigadier general in the Egyptian military. As a liaison officer on the Sinai Peninsula, he maintained contact with the Israelis, multinational troops and the Palestinians. He has photos of himself sitting at a negotiating table across from Israeli officers and in the Gaza office of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He even worked for Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, back when the now-Egyptian president was still the head of Egypt's military intelligence.
After three decades of service as a brigadier general, Bakr retired. "The stress was too much," he says. His current position, commanding security guards at Taba Heights, is much more relaxed -- and the pay is better too. "This new job is a piece of cake," he says.
It's not the kind of thing you'd expect to hear on the Sinai Peninsula, which is considered a stronghold of Islamic terrorists and Germany's Foreign Ministry has officially issued a "partial travel warning" for all of Egypt. It's the kind of cautionary notice that's read carefully by German travelers -- like the Koslowski family.
Sylke and Ulrich Koslowski are nice people. She's a cashier at Lidl, the German discount supermarket chain, while he works as a machinist. They live in Warstein, a town that is, geographically speaking, smack in the middle of Germany. From the balcony of their second-story apartment, they look out upon the green undulations of the Sauerland, a low range of hills. The Koslowskis like to go for walks and they love where they live. Yet the walls of their apartment are decorated with framed photographs of the many trips they've taken. They've always loved to travel.
Hungary, Bulgaria, Mallorca, Italy and Fuerteventura along with city trips to Amsterdam, London and Brussels. They were in Abu Dhabi and the Maldives. They wanted to go to Turkey next -- Istanbul perhaps, or to Antalya, where the prices are tempting for so many Germans. They're worldly people, interested in new places.
But then came terror -- and with it, fear.
This year, the Koslowskis aren't going to Turkey or the Maldives. Instead, they've chosen Fehmarn, a Baltic Sea island off Germany's northern coast. Their choice to travel domestically is a common one these days and Germany's beach resorts are fully booked.
Such travel choices made by the Koslowskis of this world, totally normal Germans, are having a profound impact. Due to their anxieties, their fears and their trip cancellations, hotels in Tunisia are going bankrupt and Turkey is losing a significant chunk of its usual tourism revenue.
Sylke Koslowski once visited a mosque in the Maldives, which was very impressive, she says. But today, she's afraid. She fears a rage she does not understand. She doesn't want to have the feeling of "being accepted in these countries just because tourists bring in money" without actually being welcome.
Vacation was once a microcosm of globalization, one that was accessible to everyone. Average Joes, cashiers and machinists alike, would fly in crammed discount jets via Dubai and Singapore to Phuket, Thailand. The diving instructor would be from Kuala Lumpur, Muslim and married to a Buddhist. At night, everyone would drink Dutch beer and eat Thai soup and ribs with sauerkraut. It was pleasant and comfortable, but it was not a situation that was built to last. It was delusional to believe such a comfort zone could be maintained forever, whether people were paying for it or not. Many such vacation destinations were in countries where society was in a precarious state of tension, aggravated by political repression, poverty and hatreds.
But are tourists really interested in all that? Of course not. Tourists are in search of simplicity, says crisis and communications expert Peter Höbel, who advises firms in the travel industry. They want a place where they are removed from psychological strain, from incomprehensible anger -- and they want to be loved.
The tsunami in December 2004, for instance, cost more people their lives than all terrorist attacks since then. But that was a natural disaster, an act of God. Terrorism, on the other hand, is the personification of evil. It undermines our self-image as travelers; we want to be smiled at and greeted as friends. This illusion is currently being destroyed.
But isn't fear of terrorist attacks, rationally speaking, completely overblown? From the sober perspective of statisticians and risk analysts, the answer is yes. The probability of falling victim to terrorist violence in a foreign country is extremely low. You're much more likely to get into a car accident on the way to the airport or suffer a heart attack inside the terminal because the check-in line is so long.
Risk analysts have come up with a unit of measurement for death called the micromort. It measures the probability of dying an unnatural death on a an otherwise normal day. One micromort is the equivalent of a one-in-a-million chance that someone will die. A holiday flight, for example, is relatively safe. You can fly from Düsseldorf to Antalya and back and only expose yourself to a risk of less than 0.5 micromorts. A Caesarean section, on the other hand, has a statistical probability of 170 micromorts, while bypass surgery clocks in at 16,000 micromorts.
And when Ulrich Koslowski rides home from Fehmarn on his Harley-Davidson, a trip that covers a distance of about 400 kilometers (248.5 miles), he'll hit a risk factor of 40 micromorts. That's not very high, but it's higher than was the risk of dying in a terror attack in France in 2015. Death by terrorism is as likely as death by falling coconut, which kills 150 people a year. Or by walking backwards off a cliff while taking a selfie -- a fairly new kind of fatal accident.
But vacation isn't a probability calculation. It is an emotional journey. And fear breeds more fear. Tourists are social creatures -- and not many of them would enjoy the prospect of sitting alone near the hotel buffet, surrounded by melancholic waiters.
Another factor came into play as the Koslowskis decided upon Fehmarn. It's an invention from northern Germany, and it first hit the market this year -- a beach chair that transforms into a canopy bed where you can spend the night. At 1.3 meters wide and 2.4 meters long, it can be zipped up and it has portholes for peeking outside. From the confines of its walls, you can look up and see the stars and listen to the waves breaking against the shore.
Arne Schultchen has a particularly nice way of explaining the success of this beach basket. He runs a design agency in Hamburg and it was his company that developed this novelty and the philosophy to go along with it. The beach chair, Schultchen says, represents shelter and security: "The beach chair is kind to me, it's reliable -- the opposite of a terrorist." That's certainly one way to see it. The beach chair is certainly symbolic of an important trend in tourism. Since 2005, the number of overnight visitors to Germany has jumped 27 percent, and in the last year alone, it rose 2.9 percent to 436 million people.
Fear of terrorism is dividing the world into winners and losers. Spain, Germany, Greece and Italy are profiting. In Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, small family-owned companies and large hotel chains alike are going under.
The year 2016 could be a decisive one: The winners are experiencing the full power of the tourism industry, one of the biggest economic sectors on the planet. In the EU, there are as many people working in tourism as there are in the auto industry or the agricultural sector.
The losers see themselves in a war of sorts, one in which today's enemy was yesterday's friend. Their mode of attack is the fact that they no longer show up. Unemployed Egyptians, desperate Tunisians -- that's how new refugees are made, or how legions of young men become susceptible to the siren song of Islamist preachers.