BY DAVID JESSOP – Last month, at least 38 holidaymakers died on a beach in Tunisia, and many more were injured in an appalling terrorist attack aimed at killing visitors and terminally damaging the country’s tourism industry. It was the second such event this year, following another attack on a museum in March that left 17 dead.
In the Caribbean, there have been expressions of sympathy and solidarity with Tunisia and with those whose lives have been irreparably altered by the attack.
However, the reasoning behind the terrible events in that Mediterranean country should cause every government in the Caribbean with an economy dependent on tourism to think more deeply about the implications. That is to say, to understand that this is not only about attacking western tourists and all that tourism stands for, but is also about a belief that by inducing fear among those who might have considered a vacation in Tunisia, it will collapse the tourism economy and bring instability that can be used to the long-term global advantage of the perpetrators.
There is always the danger that addressing the issue of tourism and security will draw attention to it and thus dissuade visitors from travelling. For this reason it cannot be stressed enough that the Caribbean is among the world’s safest locations for a happy and peaceful vacation.
That said, it is clear that the subject now has to become an issue globally that Governments and industry professionals, including those in the Caribbean, need to consider closely on a regional and international basis.
What happened in Tunisia, and before in Mumbai, in Kenya and Egypt, provides a clear indication of the economic threat that terrorism poses when tourism is its target.
As the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) pointed out, the tourism industry in Tunisia plays a pivotal role in the country’s economy, generating over 15 per cent of the country’s GDP in 2014, or around US$7.4 billion, directly supporting nearly 14 per cent of overall employment.
It is therefore easy to understand why the country’s Tourism Minister, Salma Loumi, said after the attack that the damage to the Tunisian economy would be great. The country had expected to receive about 6.5m visitors in 2015, but the two terrorist events have had the effect of not only causing visitors to quite literally flee, but the industry and government to forecast the loss of millions of holidaymakers as tour operators pull out of the country, cruise ship arrivals cease, and airlift is significantly reduced. Latest figures suggest that Tunisia expects to lose, at the very least, US$515m in tourism earnings this year out of anticipated direct revenues that would have surpassed the US$1.95 billion recorded in 2014.
Although the Tunisian government is considering ending its visitors’ tax, reviewing debt relief for hotel operators, making loans to the industry, and introducing new security and other measures to support the industry’s economic recovery, this is likely to be years away.
In the Caribbean, the region where travel and tourism’s total contribution to GDP is the highest in the world in percentage terms, the implications should be apparent to all, and worthy of detailed consideration.
According to the Caribbean Tourism Organisation, 26.3m tourists visited the regionin 2014, coming principally from North America and Europe and contributing a record US$29.2 billion. The WTTC reports that the industry supports, directly or indirectly, 11.3 per cent of all Caribbean employment, and very high levels of investment.
Tourism’s continuing ability to prosper is therefore a key element in the economic security of every Caribbean nation and that of the region as a whole. For this reason, it is an issue on which self-interest should drive Caribbean thinking and actions rather than being seen, as is sometimes the case, as a matter for others to fund or act on when it comes to travel related measures at airports or seaports, for example.
What events in Tunisia also suggest is that tourism as an industry needs a more coordinated global approach, a deeper understanding of how security issues relate to tourism, and a better awareness of the impact and timescales over which events can touch the industry. It also demonstrates the need for knowledge of whether there is more that might be done in the event of any kind of major crisis to achieve a form of joint response, and to have in place arrangements for crisis management and planned recovery.
Sadly in recent months there has been news that there are young men and possibly women of Caribbean parentage who are now fighting for the self-styled Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria or Iraq.
While this requires Governments, the media, religious groups and others to act carefully and responsibly and for everyone to consider the implications, these are also developments that require all Caribbean states to consider whether they have in place the necessary legislation outlawing terrorism and legally enabling the real-time exchange of information about the nihilistic young men who are now traveling to the Middle East.
Understandably, this raises concern about the impact on civil liberties, the cost of policing and security, and the exchange of information with states outside the region. However, these are matters with which, before long and in one way or another, every Caribbean nation will have to become more heavily engaged if they are to defend their national as well as the region’s long term economic interests. This may be regrettable, but it is unavoidable.
In nations where the rule of law, freedom of speech and personal freedoms are highly regarded, developing laws and regulations that respond to the kind of threats that may emerge are challenging, and result quite rightly in such legislation being legally tested. But the likelihood of what may be a war without end is why much more needs to be done to explain to a sometimes sceptical public why new measures are necessary and assurances need to be given that any new powers will not be used capriciously.
Recent events in Tunisia, though far away, should have greater resonance with governments and the industry, albeit in a low key way, in the most tourism dependent region in the world.