Sun, Mar 27, 2016 - Page 9 News List

Tourists shun resorts from Egypt to Turkey in wake of terror attacks

Sun and sand holidays underpinned North African economies, but incidents in Sousse, Tunisia, and Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, have led to a severe drop in visitor numbers

By Peter Beaumont, Chris Stephen, Helena Smith and Ruth Michaels  /  The Guardian, Cairo, Tunis and Athens

Illustration: Lance Liu

Off the windswept headland where the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba meets the Gulf of Suez, a dozen divers trail bubbles during their descent toward the famous Shark Reef, one of the world’s most popular diving sites.

One year ago, Ras Mohammed National Park would have been crowded with boats above and hundreds of divers below the water, but today’s visitors have the blue depths almost to themselves.

After the bombing of a Russian tourist jet shortly after takeoff from nearby Sharm el-Sheikh last year, most flights to the area were canceled and tourists have mostly stayed away.

Thousands of kilometers away along the Mediterranean coast, Tunisian security guard Karim Sahloul surveys another idyllic beach at the resort of Sousse, which was emptied by a terrorist attack. After a lone gunman opened fire at a hotel, killing 38 mostly British holidaymakers, few have dared to come back.

“Sousse is not like before; now it is very quiet, very dark,” said Sahloul, who was hailed as a beach-front hero last year after risking bullets to administer life-saving first aid to Briton Allison Heathcote. “A lot of people are now without work, restaurants and shopping centers are closed, everyone is feeling it.”

His bravery, and that of other tourism workers who raced to protect visitors, earned plaudits, but it was not enough to restore the confidence of visitors or their governments, which have slapped travel warnings on nations across the Middle East and North Africa.

A string of high-profile attacks, fears of more violence and official travel advisories have led to a catastrophic collapse in visitor numbers in a swath of nations across the Middle East and North Africa, which had turned sun-and-sand holidays into a critical pillar of their economies.

Kilometer after kilometer of empty hotels along the Sousse beachfront bear mute testimony to the shattering impact of the attack in June last year and a March last year assault on tourists in the Bardo museum in Tunis, in which 21 were killed.

Sahloul counts himself lucky to still have a job.

“The whole city depends on the tourists. Really life is hard; there are lots of people without work,” he said.

The sector, which employs an estimated 400,000 people, has reached a “crisis point” and its collapse risks fueling a vicious circle of extremism, Tunisian Minister of Tourism Salma Lummi said.

“Hotels have to close and this is an important industry. One of the sources of terrorism is lack of hope. It is not the only motor of it, but it is one of the very important origins,” she said.

In Egypt, the decline in tourism has been slower, but just as devastating. Annual visitor numbers peaked at 14 million in 2010, but then the nation’s revolution began in January 2011, sparking political instability that ate into tourist confidence.

The numbers have never topped 10 million since and are expected to fall slightly to about 9 million for the 2015 fiscal year, with the plane bombing and attacks on tourists adding to concerns about general violence.

Egyptian beaches and diving sites from Dahab to Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada are empty or sparsely visited. The beach hotels that are still open have shut down restaurants and wings, and cut back on activities and, although they are a long way from the northern Sinai base of the Islamic State group affiliate that claimed responsibility for the bombing of the Russian plane, Cairo, Alexandria, Aswan and Luxor have also been hit hard.

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