Effect of terrorist attacks on tourism: keep calm and carry on

11 July 2018



Two years ago, tourists stayed away from Paris, Istanbul and Nice after a series of deadly attacks, but the European hotel market recovered swiftly after more recent incidents. Greg Noone talks to Thomas Emanuel, director of business development at STR, and Mehmet Önkal, managing partner at BDO Hospitality Consulting, about how attitudes towards the risk presented by terrorism have changed.


When the sirens had stopped, the debris been swept away and the bridge reopened, the panegyrics began. London was resilient, said the police, the politicians and the columnists; it had seen this before and had seen off worse. Those who sought to inspire terror, by bomb or bullet or knife, would fail, because of what would happen tomorrow, and the next day, and the one after that. The Thames would flow and the tube would run. London would endure.

There were two audiences for this rhetoric: those that lived and worked in the UK capital, and those who intended to visit. The latter group is always more fickle, simply by dint of the options available to them – if they perceive a destination to be dangerous, they can cancel or reschedule their trip. Tourist numbers often take several months, sometimes years, to recover. Gradually, the city’s landmarks will seem a littlequieter, the hotels a little emptier, by which point a victory of sorts is conceded to those who sought to instil terror in the first place.

Many would be forgiven for thinking the same would happen to the UK capital after the London Bridge attack. On a hot June evening last year, a white van mounted the pavement and ran over three pedestrians, before crashing in a nearby street.

Three men jumped out of the vehicle, each carrying 12in kitchen knives, before proceeding to slash and stab anyone they could find. Each attacker was shot dead by armed police within minutes of the start of the assault.

Business as usual

The impact on tourism in London was much as expected: a small dip in visitor numbers. What followed was more surprising. “The following week, London was still busy,” says Thomas Emanuel, director of business development at STR. A similar trend was observed in Manchester, after the bombing of an Ariana Grande concert the previous month. The city “was down ever so slightly last year”, says Emanuel, “but that was all because of supply growth. It wasn’t because rates or demand were down. We didn’t see an impact as soon as the concert ended.”

This pattern was not confined to the UK. As Emanuel noted in a report for STR in May, RevPAR increased in cities that had suffered similar attacks at a quicker pace than anticipated, including Berlin and Barcelona, both of which had seen upswings of 3%.

His conclusions? Tourists have begun to accept these types of attacks as a fact of life. “I think they’re becoming more stoic, and less likely to change plans as a result of a terrorist attack,” says Emanuel.

This new reality lies in stark contrast to hotel performance in 2016, after a series of incidents in Paris, Brussels, Nice and Istanbul. “We saw [RevPAR] doubledigit declines in those earlier terrorist attacks,” says Emanuel, which in almost all cases were the first of their type on European soil. “If you think about the attention that some of those earlier attacks got versus… for example, the Berlin attack, it was very different.”

One case study even enables us to quantify the impact a terrorist incident might have on a destination’s hotel industry compared to other factors. The Daesh-inspired attack on Las Ramblas, Barcelona, in August 2017 that left 131 injured and 15 dead did little to diminish its popularity with tourists.

“Barcelona was having an incredibly strong year,” explains Emanuel. “We had the August attacks. August, September: no impact [on RevPAR].”

Then came the Catalan independence referendum. For weeks, reports of chaotic political demonstrations flooded news outlets, with many wondering whether the region’s separatist government would attempt to break away from Spain.

The impact on the hotel industry in Barcelona was substantial: a sustained double-digit decline in RevPAR. “That indicates a far bigger reticence for people to go to a market because of political unrest than a terrorist attack,” concludes Emanuel.

Paris and Brussels, however, seem to be the exception to this new rule. Hit by several mass shootings and suicide bombings in 2015 and 2016, both cities saw significant and prolonged double digit declines in RevPAR. However, there are signs that recovery is imminent.

“Markets like Paris, like Brussels, they have multiple demand drivers,” says Emanuel. “People always want to visit them from a leisure perspective. They have strong corporate business, as well. They have the ability to hold large conferences and events, too. So, the demand drivers for those markets remain.”

The hotel market where the pace of recovery has been most profound, however, lies on the other side of Europe. Turkey saw the number of visitors to Istanbul and its coastal resorts dip significantly after a spate of terror attacks, not to mention a coup attempt that saw armed confrontations between sections of the country’s military and its civilian population.

From 2017 onwards, though, the number of visitors to Turkey began to recover; according to Thomas Cook, package holidays to the country are now up by as much as 84% compared with last year. Stakeholders like Mehmet Önkal at BDO Consulting are predicting that, by this time next year, the Turkish hospitality market will have reached new heights.

“I was recently in the Antalya region, and I saw that, the activity is really very high there,” says Önkal, who was conducting work for resorts in Kemer and Belek. “‘The crisis hasn’t been here, really, like it has been in other parts of Turkey."

In Istanbul, the difference was clearer. The queues to sites like Hagia Sofia are returning, and any notes of concern about occupancy in the city has faded. “I haven’t heard anything adverse about the Old City [or] the Çatalca peninsula,” says Önkal. “They’ve been very active.”

Assessing how much of that previous reticence among tourists was down to fears about political instability is wwdifficult, says Emanuel. “We saw five separate terror attacks in Istanbul in 2016, and then a big nightclub shooting on 1 January 2017. And in the middle of all of that was the coup attempt against Erdogan [then prime minister of Turkey.]”

Any attempt to factor in how much the image of tanks facing off against protesters contributed to the image of Turkey as a destination to avoid is like falling down a spiral staircase and trying to figure out which step did the most damage. “The market was already in trouble,” says Emanuel. “We were seeing significant double-digit decline across Turkey, Istanbul and the resorts.”

Önkal disputes the idea that political instability was an issue for tourism in the first place. The major contributory factors were terrorism and foreign policy, he says: you can’t say a country is politically unstable if it’s had the same government for a decade and a half.

“Foreign policy, that is something else,” says Önkal. In 2016, Russia and Turkey almost came to blows after one of the former’s jets was shot down by the latter on its border with Syria.

In response, Moscow resorted to the softer retaliatory measure of banning its tourists from visiting Turkey altogether.

“This created a big problem, in addition to the military coup attempt,” says Önkal. Resorts on the Black Sea immediately suffered, with visitor numbers sinking by up to 92%. “But our president [Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister at the time] and the Russian president, they solved this problem.”

We saw five separate terror attacks in Istanbul in 2016, and then a big nightclub shooting on 1 January 2017. And in the middle of all of that was the coup attempt against Erdogan.
– Thomas Emanuel

One apology later, and Turkey’s Black Sea resorts – so dependent on custom from Russia – are flourishing once more.

In fact, according to Önkal, it is almost exclusively thanks to action taken by the government that the Turkish hospitality industry has recovered. The industry itself has done relatively little.

“They haven’t acted together,” says Önkal. “They have been looking for the state to do things for them, rather than themselves trying to do something, rather than getting organised to do something.”

Whatever the case, the immediate future for the Turkish hospitality industry looks bright. British and German tourists are returning in greater numbers.

Newer arrivals have also played their part. “Istanbul hotels did very well during the crisis period in terms of occupancies because of people [visiting] from the Middle East,” says Önkal. This pattern has continued to persist this year, he says, excepting the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslim tourists stayed home. “We expect [them] to come back again,” says Önkal.

Indeed, the developer is so confident that things will return to normal for the Turkish hotel industry that he has begun thinking about the next problem: diversification. Turkey has already benefitted from this to some extent, welcoming new visitors from the likes of Iran, Iraq and Ukraine.

Increased diversity

One market, however, has remained particularly elusive. “About 15 years a go, our sister company, BDO France, was having an annual get-together of contractors, hoteliers, press, consultants, and invited me,” says Önkal.

He remembers in particular one meeting, the first hour of which was devoted to a dry discussion about occupancies and average rates in the French hotel industry. The second hour was on Chinese tourists.

“They talked about China: ‘They’re going to be open to tourism, they’re going to visit the world, they’re going to come to France,’” recalls Önkal. The French, he says, “started thinking about that 15 years ago. We still have not done anything about it. We sit and wait.”

Markets like Turkey – and, indeed, the UK, France and Germany – seem to always have been able to plan ahead, with the luxury of multiple demand drivers. This has not been the case for countries lying just beyond Europe’s border.

“I think there’s still more reticence, I think, for people from Europe travelling to northern Africa,” says Emanuel. “Egypt and Tunisia will take longer to come back.”

Perhaps a recovery there will prove to be the final proof that attitudes have truly changed.

Floral tributes left at London Bridge, scene of a deadly terrorist attack in June 2017..
While some European cities have weathered terror attacks with no significant effects on RevPAR, Paris has suffered a double-digit decline following the events of 2015 and 2016.


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