Grounded by terror turbulence: Will fear keep Irish tourists at home?
Terrorism in Tunisia, unrest in Turkey, the migrant crisis and an Egyptian plane tragedy. Will fear keep Irish tourists at home?
It's nearly 6,000 kilometres from the rugged Atlantic coastline of Co Galway to the palm-tree lined Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt.
But when Russian MetroJet Flight 9268 crashed over the Sinai Peninsula last weekend, having departed with a plane-load of tourists from the popular resort, the reverberations were felt in one west of Ireland home.
"I couldn't believe it when the news came through. It was so awful, 224 dead and the alarm bells sounded for me immediately," says 68-year-old Paddy McGowan.
Paddy and his wife Elaine were due to holiday in Sharm el-Sheikh next year to mark their 40th wedding anniversary but following the explosion of the Irish registered aircraft, and the subsequent warning from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) not to travel there, they'll now stay closer to home.
"For years we've talked about going to the Red Sea, so the children treated us to the trip - though luckily we'd yet to book it. But this has put the frighteners on us for sure," explains Elaine. The couple will now travel to either Spain or Portugal instead.
"Sure, it's not worth the risk. I don't want my well-earned holiday to be ruined by fear... or worse. The British are evacuating their tourists from there now. Between Islamic terrorists, the Russians and God knows who else, Egypt is a no-go area for us regardless of what we're advised," says Paddy, a retired civil servant.
As British and American investigators revealed their belief that a bomb 'may' have led to the explosion of the Russian aircraft, the DFA updated its risk level for Egypt. It says: "Irish citizens are advised to avoid non-essential travel to Egypt due to a heightened threat of terrorist incidents, including targeted attacks against foreigners, and a continuing threat of civil unrest."
The season's last chartered holiday flight from Egypt arrived back in Dublin on the Thursday before the air disaster. But a couple of hundred Irish holidaymakers have booked to go to Sharm el-Sheikh when direct flights resume on Christmas Eve. The tour companies Falcon Holidays and Red Sea Holidays, who both serve Egypt, are said to be monitoring the situation closely.
Also Irish airline operators have been instructed not to operate to or from Sharm el-Sheikh airport or in the Egyptian Sinai peninsula airspace until further notice by the Irish Aviation Authority.
Meanwhile, Irish holidaymakers who recently travelled to the Red Sea resort with British travel companies, including Thomas Cook, must wait to be evacuated with tension in the area building.
Large swathes of North Africa and the Middle East are now regarded as 'no-go' areas in light of terrorist incidents, kidnappings and the ongoing migration crisis.
The Tunisian beach attacks in June, when a gunman opened fire on holidaymakers in the Sousse region killing 38 people including three Irish citizens, sent shock waves across the world. Lorna Carty from Meath and Athlone couple Martina and Laurence Hayes lost their lives in the attack.
As a result, package holidays to Tunisia from Ireland were suspended and the DFA urged against non-essential travel there - interestingly though, countries such as Italy, France and Germany did not impose such strict measures and holidaymakers from those countries still arrive in Tunis.
"The loss of life was truly devastating," says Sunway Travel's managing director Tanya Airey. Sunway Travel worked to bring home Irish holidaymakers in the wake of the terrorist attacks and offered those who had booked future packages to Tunisia with them either a full refund or a holiday to another location.
From a commercial point of view, the terrorist attack also had a significant impact. "We had a flight to Tunisia every week during the season, so around 9,000 Irish tourists were going there each year through us," says Tanya Airey.
Political upheaval in Turkey and the sight of thousands of refugees arriving on to Greek Islands has also turned many off visiting these countries. But in the main, tourism figures for both Turkey and Greece have remained steady.
Martin Skelly, president of the Irish Travel Agents Association, told Review: "We find that those who have visited these locations before are much more likely to return compared with those who are considering it for the first time."
And Turkey, in particular, continues to offer excellent value for money for holidaymakers, according to Tanya Airey. "In terms of capacity, Turkey would be our most popular destination," she says. "Despite unrest in places like Istanbul and Ankara, Irish holidaymakers feel safe going to the country. The reality is that Turkey is a massive nation and while there might be unrest in one area, other parts, hundreds of miles away, are completely untouched."
Indeed, Martin Skelly says Turkey is growing as a destination of choice for Irish holidaymakers. "In August it was impossible to find a single spare seat on flights from Ireland to Turkey," he says. "The last time I recall that happening was about 15 years ago."
Each year 41 million tourists visit Turkey and projected figures for 2015 show that the unrest has barely affected visitor numbers. The DFA advises Irish visitors to Turkey to travel with extreme caution and rates the threat from terrorism in Turkey as 'high'.
It advises: "While areas popular with Irish travellers are located at a substantial distance from these regions (where terrorist attacks have occurred), vigilance is required in tourist areas such as at Taksim Square in Istanbul which may be a target for terrorist attacks."
For those determined to visit the country's main cities though reasonable accommodation at low-budget costs are available.
The risk of terrorism in Morocco is rated as 'very high' with tourist areas potential targets; the DFA advises against non-essential travel to Tunisia and, since this week, to Egypt as well.
The ability to reroute and restructure offers to the travelling Irish public has long since been an art that tour operators here have perfected, as Tanya Airey explains: "There will always be political and natural events which will impact the travel trade. In recent years we've had to deal with September 11, the Icelandic ash cloud disruption, political unrest, and so on."
You get the feeling though that if investigators confirm the latest plane explosion was caused by a terrorist bomb, the repercussions for travel to Egypt, the Middle East, North Africa and, even parts of Eastern Europe, could be more profound that anything we've witnessed before.
Where you can pick up a bargain
Overlooking the Aegean Sea, you could be sipping champagne at the four-star Golden Day Wings Hotel next May for just €474 per person for seven nights (including flights and accommodation) via Sunway Travel.
Fancy a long weekend of luxury in the ancient city of Istanbul to eradicate those post-Christmas blues? Well Air France are offering flights for €145 per person direct from Dublin in January. And when in Istanbul, a double room in the five-star Hilton Istanbul would set you back just €371 for three nights.
Many tourists feel safer on water than in the air these days and for €449 all-in you can enjoy a mid-November cruise into the eastern waters of the Mediterranean. Departing from Venice, the luxury cruise liner will visit Katakolon in Greece, Izmir and Istanbul in Turkey, Dubrovnik in Croatia before returning to Venice. For more information visit cruiseparadise.ie.
With hotels rooms starting at just €8 a night in Agadir, €13 in Casablanca and €5 in Marrakech, the destination has never been better-priced - though security issues are still to be considered. Check out the five-star Le Village Du Toubkal and Spa overlooking the Atlas Mountains with rooms, according to travelrepublic.ie, from just €16 per person. Ryanair now flies into Marrakech and flights can be snapped up for around €65 per person.