Sunday 25 September 2016

Terror fears mean uncertainty is new norm for tourism

Eoghan Corry

Published 20/05/2016 | 02:30

A woman waits outside the building where relatives and friends of passengers in the EgyptAi plane that vanished from radar en route from Paris to Cairo were being accommodated at Cairo Airport. Photo: Reuters
A woman waits outside the building where relatives and friends of passengers in the EgyptAi plane that vanished from radar en route from Paris to Cairo were being accommodated at Cairo Airport. Photo: Reuters

We do not yet know what happened to EgyptAir flight MS804, which was scheduled to travel from Paris CDG to Cairo. But we know what is likely to happen next. Passengers will cancel their flights. Travel to Egypt, already disrupted severely from the French market, will come to an abrupt halt, as travel from Ireland already has.

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All of north Africa and the Middle East region and anywhere associated with recent political upheaval will suffer cancellations of holiday bookings and airline routes, shredding their fragile tourism sectors.

France, 15 of whose citizens died when the aircraft mysteriously fell out of the sky and which has been hit twice by militants in the past 18 months, will accuse jihadists of targeting its Euro 2016 championship, already scheduled to be played under a state of emergency.

Questions will be raised about the access granted to members of ground staff at Paris airports.

Journeys by ordinary passengers will get more stressful.

Analysis of the event will follow national, and some would say, racial perspectives. Hopefully, it is unlikely to plumb the depths of boisterous racial stereotyping that followed the loss of EgyptAir Flight 990 in the USA in 1999.

There will be competitive safety measures, debris searches and suggestions as to the cause of the crash from neighbouring countries and others.

While this looks most likely to have been the work of jihadists, even if it was the result of more mundane mid-flight killers such as rapid decompression of the air cabin, it will become increasingly irrelevant as the debate about Egypt's safety record takes off.

Egyptian officials who asked reporters not to speculate about the cause were closing the stable door to the sound of distant hooves.

Even Egypt's Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fathy has said that "the possibility of a terror attack is higher than the possibility of a technical failure".

Critics accuse Egypt of foot-dragging about the country's last aircraft disappearance; a Russian plane flying from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to St Petersburg, carrying 224 people, was seemingly brought down over Sinai. It was February before Egypt gave in to speculation that militants were responsible.

The aircraft which was carrying 66 people from Paris to Cairo crashed into the Mediterranean shortly before it was to land. There was no distress call from the pilots, who had brought the aircraft to a normal cruising altitude of 37,000 feet. Panos Kammenos, Greece's defence minister, says it turned "90 degrees left and 360 degrees to the right" before crashing. Searchers have found debris floating 370km south of Crete.

When something of this magnitude occurs, airlines expect a trough of reduced demand.

Airline chiefs and leasing companies, many of which operate out of Dublin, anticipate that a crisis like this would normally last a week or 10 days. They are ready for it. They say that a strike or an ice storm can cause similar disruption. It costs the industry tens, if not hundreds, of millions of euro in lost revenue, but it is a hit they are ready to take.

But they have become more nervous with each incident. People are likely to cancel bookings through the peak summer period as a result of yesterday.

World travel is a resilient beast. One event did not stop people travelling to London or Madrid. Attacks in Paris and Brussels were more costly, and the impact has lasted for months. The airline and tourist industry has noticed that this trough period has been getting longer. Paris is still being affected by the November attacks. The impact on travel to Brussels has been more devastating than first assumed. This was not helped by the fact that the reopening of Zaventem airport proved slower and more complicated than expected. Tourism Ireland and the sector throughout Dublin has been speculating nervously on how a series of events which cause people to travel less will impact on our own badly needed growth in visitor numbers.

For Egypt, whose airline has had nine major incidents concerning hijacking or loss of life over the past 60 years, this is a fatal blow to their faint prospects of recovery from the disappearance of Metrojet Flight 9268 over Sharm El Sheikh in October. This is a lot to bear for an airline with a fleet of 63 planes and eight million passengers a year. Aer Lingus, which has a fleet of 46 and 10 million passengers a year, has been incident-free over the same period.

Just a week ago, Egypt had been celebrating the fact that the German government decided to lift luggage restrictions to Sharm el Sheikh, the first faltering step back to normality by the country's tourist industry.

The UN's tourism spin-off, UNWTO, had issued its strongest-worded statement calling for the lifting of any unnecessary flight bans on travel for tourists a few days earlier, on May 10. These small steps in the right direction have now been nullified.

Egypt's tourist industry is now at its lowest point since the Luxor attacks of 1996. The number of visitors has fallen from 14.7 million in 2010, a year before an uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule, to 9.3 million last year, slightly more than the island of Ireland.

Just 1.2 million tourists visited Egypt in the first quarter of this year. That number can be expected to fall further. Even if you want to travel to Egypt, there is a ban on air travel by aviation authorities, a highly unusual move, from Ireland.

Uncertainty is the new norm in aviation and in tourism, and there is no sign of this changing. We are all the poorer for it.

Irish Independent

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