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

Hotel beach in Taba, Egypt
Armin Smailovic / DER SPIEGEL

Hotel beach in Taba, Egypt

Sinai Peninsula

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.

Ulrich and Sylke Koslowski on the island of Fehmarn
Maria Feck / DER SPIEGEL

Ulrich and Sylke Koslowski on the island of Fehmarn


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.


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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Inglenda2 07/13/2016
1. The area was always hazardous!
It is difficult to believe that anyone from Europe can really feel safe in Egypt, or come to that, in any other Middle East country (including Israel), Having spent nearly two years in that part of the world, during the 1950s, I was then always aware of the dangers involved. In the meantime, little would seem to have changed, apart from the advance in the techniques used for criminal activities. For tourists, or even overseas workers concerned, it makes little difference whether they are attacked by offenders who are ready to kill for material reasons, or by religious fanatics. The result is the same.
bicester55 07/14/2016
2. Koslowski domestic holiday risk is untypical and pessimistic
Koslowskis are stated as typical but their risk of 40 micromorts is unusually high because they go by motorbike. A car is typically 35 times lower. I.e. barely above 1. Also even for their motorbike it is too high. In the busy UK it would be 30 (2012 figures) and for people of their age it would be half of that i.e. 15. (Every hour wasted in your life is really worth about 2 micromorts so their journely will save here as well.)
fish2064 07/14/2016
3. Not any more
I have lived and travelled in Muslim countries but not anymore, it simply isn't safe. Turkey and Egypt were two of my favourites but it is simply crazy to venture there now. Religion is a cancer that destroys everything it touches. I left Europe as the cancer is spreading there. I now live in a secular Asian country where religion is barely tolerated and I feel safe. Growing up in Northern Ireland taught me there is no such thing as a phobia when it comes to religion it is a genuine fear that all Atheists must have to stay safe from the religions of peace who want to see us converted or dead.
basho575 07/14/2016
4. egypt & turkey vacations
problem: you're importing into your own previously safe countries and vacation spots immigrants some of whom come from the same groups who ruined your vacations in egypt and turkey. which leaves you where to go?
david_svarrer 07/14/2016
5. Tourism Changing as fears of terrorism broaden...
It is sad, that we humans have become so encapsulated in our glass bubble, so that we need psychological help when a hole emerges in our shopping bag... We need to distinguish between two very similar, but distinct different scenarios: 1. On one hand, terrorism is strictly illegal, immoral, wrong, it is violence at its extreme, etc. etc. etc. - 2. On the other hand, we need to understand what is the feed of terrorism. The feed is severe inequality, abject poverty, kids growing up seeing more than half their family die due to hardship - and such kids upon reaching youth, saying to themselves and everyone who have survived to listen: Never again. The problem in these two seemingly opposite statements is that we tend to be fed with the conundrum statement, that DUE to (1 above) that terrorism is strictly illegal, violent, unacceptable etc. etc., then we shall not accept to look into (2) the food-chain feeding the monster. The problem is not religion. Religion has its own sicknesses, but just as only minor parts of the Christians would ever lift a hand against another human being - so would the vast majority of the Muslims never, ever lift their hand against another human being - and similar traits are to be found within almost any recognized religion on Mother Earth. The solution to the conundrum is, that even though we shall not accept the RESPONSE from the poverty - terrorism - then we shall not refuse to deal with it, due to the shape of the violent response. In fact, looking into the issue, and take the consequence of the conclusion, would have tremendous and peaceful, lasting effect on bringing down terrorism to the level it started with, namely the single, local, isolated cases we used to have late in the 20th century (Baader Meinhof, Rote Arme Fraktion etc.).. To reach to that point, we would need a global initiative, which could likely be spurred through United Nations or similar international body. The global initiative would do well in looking into how we as a global nation could spur growth of wealth for all, instead of "fighting poverty". It is in its nature violent, when private property right excludes people who cannot fend for their life, due to marginalisation, from having any chance of living except stealing, begging. What the world needs is a peaceful solution - maybe like the above - maybe in another way (please contribute!), which sorts out the very cause of the unrest which makes someone able to feed on other peoples misery - both in the private-property-way and in the response - the terrorism-way. Both of these are violent in nature, and both of them are unacceptable. Removing the violent suppression of marginalized populations would likely (!) remove terrorism. Please take your time to correct me if I am wrong. You are welcome to challenge me on the email, ...
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