How the fear spreads

Terrorists have a strong strategic incentive to target Western tourists.
Sousse attack montage flickr

Harrowing media coverage of Islamic State terrorist attacks on Western tourists is deterring people from travelling to all Muslim countries. New findings from LSE show how the fear of further attack spreads.

After 38 foreign holidaymakers, most of them British, were shot dead in a horrific Islamic State terrorist attack at a beach hotel near Sousse, Tunisia in 2015, the effects on tourism were devastating.

Several European travel companies and cruise operators immediately suspended operations to Tunisia so, by the following year, tourist numbers had fallen to their lowest level in decades, 100 hotels had closed and tourist revenues were down by 35 per cent. Two years on, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office is still advising against all but essential travel to Tunisia due to the “high threat” from terrorism.

The slaughter in Sousse was just one of several attacks in recent years targeting tourists in Islamic countries which have prompted a mass exodus of holidaymakers from popular destinations such as Egypt, Turkey and Morocco.

In one of the most comprehensive analyses of its kind, Eric Neumayer and Thomas Plumper researched the effects of attacks on Western citizens in specific Islamic countries to see how it affects tourism to this and other Islamic countries.

Professor Neumayer says: “Terrorists have a strong strategic incentive to target Western tourists. Not only will this generate considerable media attention, but such attacks also target the major sources of tourist inflows and the victims come from countries whose governments often support militarily, politically or economically the governments in Islamic countries that the terrorists wish to overthrow. The value of terrorist attacks on Western tourists goes beyond the fact that they are symbols of Western culture and are easily identifiable as different in predominantly Islamic countries. Attacks on tourists are attacks on an important source of revenue for the government.”

Their research shows how terrorism in a predominantly Islamic country against citizens from a specific Western country of origin does not merely affect tourism to the country in which the attack takes place, or tourism from the victims’ country of origin. Instead, the tourism-deterring effect spills over into other Islamic destination countries and other Western origin countries. The decline is larger for tourists from the country whose citizens have been killed or injured, but tourists from other Western countries are also deterred.

The results suggest that tourists correctly infer that if terrorists attack their fellow citizens in one country, they also have an incentive to attack them in other similar destination countries. Similarly, tourists from other Western origin countries infer that they are more likely to become victimized in that and other similar destinations. Thus, terrorist attacks on one group of Western tourists in one country will reduce the number of other Western tourists that take holidays in other, similar countries.

Using World Tourism Organisation data from 1995 to 2013, the researchers analysed the effect on tourism of 190 fatal terrorist incidents in Islamic countries involving citizens from Western countries. These incidents resulted in 1,402 deaths.

Their main conclusions are that, in the country where the attack took place, one additional fatal incident is predicted to reduce the tourist flow from the country of the main victims by 4.2 per cent in the same year and by 7.4 per cent in the subsequent one.

There are also what the researchers call contagion or spill-over effects:

Firstly, if nationals from a certain country, the UK for example, have become victims of fatal terrorist incidents in an Islamic country, such as Tunisia for example, this also affects tourism from the UK to other Islamic countries, such as Egypt. Thus, one additional incident in which British citizens were the main victims in one Islamic destination is predicted to reduce the tourist flow from the UK to another Islamic country by 3.8 per cent in the same year and by 3.7 per cent in the next one.

Secondly, tourists from one Western country, such as France for example, are deterred by fatal incidents involving other Western nationals, such as Italians, in a specific Islamic destination country, such as Turkey, with the estimated effect being 2.4 per cent for one additional fatal incident in both the same and next year.

Lastly, the researchers found that terror attacks against Western citizens in Islamic countries even have spill-over effects entirely beyond any of the countries involved. They find that tourism from other Western countries to other Islamic countries declines by 2.8 per cent both in the same year and with a one-year lag.

Professor Neumayer concludes: “Our research provides further reasons for regional cooperation in anti-terrorism policies among Islamic destination countries since countries cannot shield themselves from the negative consequences of terrorism on tourism by preventing such attacks only in their own country.”

Behind the article