TCS Daily

Travel Safe

By Johan Wennstrom - July 29, 2005 12:00 AM

Those who perished in Sharm El-Sheikh may not be the only victims of last weekend's terrorist attack. As foreign visitors are evacuated, the Egyptian tourist resort is said to resemble a ghost town; the tourism industry is being devastated, and thousands of local jobs are in jeopardy.

Tourism is one of the main industries in Egypt and represents 25 percent of the country's total foreign exchange income. It is also the motor of Sharm El-Sheikh, where most Egyptians work on commission from doing business with visiting Westerners. But already major hotels in the area are preparing to lay off staff and cut down on maintenance. If the tourists do not come back soon, countless small businesses - including taxi companies and family-owned restaurants - will go under.

The economic backlash in Sharm El-Sheikh, which could result in criminality and poverty, may prove to be the real tragedy arising from this terrible event. But worse is that it could happen in Europe, too. In fact, it is happening in London already.

After the 7/7 attacks and the attempted suicide operations on the public transport system, it is not only Londoners who feel frightened. A recent opinion poll showed that 40 percent of Swedish tourists do not dare to visit the British capital. Some of the tourist hotspots in London, fast-food restaurants and nightclubs, seem emptier. And shopping in the city has dropped off dramatically since the beginning of July. This is, of course, what the terrorists want.

Those who targeted the London Underground, the men who killed in Sharm El-Sheikh and the suicide bomber who strolled into the Hilton in Taba last October, all wanted to hit the tourist industry. The freedom to travel wherever we wish and discover the world is such an integral part of the Western lifestyle and so significant for the world economy that it is a perfect target.

It is an attack on the market, where people live side-by-side and trade freely with each other, and an attempt to divide us. Ultimately, it is about bringing down entire societies, like Egypt or Great Britain, and instilling fear in people, so they give up their natural freedoms in order to feel secure. Tourists may not want to come back to Sharm El-Sheikh after what has happened there, but they should. They contribute to the economy as well as fight terror with their defiance. For the same reasons London should not be abandoned.

Here the message from authorities, for example the Mayor's Office, has been to get back on the Underground and the buses. It is the right message, but it lacks this: Get back in the shops and the restaurants. We cannot allow the terrorists to put chefs and sales clerks out of work. Let it be known that London is a place where working life is thriving despite attempts to make it into something darker, more sinister - a besieged city, living in fear.

In the wake of 9/11, airlines took a plunge because of outstanding customers. It would be disastrous for entire tourist industries to go out of business just because people are afraid of going to certain areas and cities. Then, the terrorists will have won. We will be left confined to bunkers and safe rooms since no one knows in which part of the world the next bomb will go off. London, and certainly Sharm El-Sheikh, need tourists, and tourists need to exercise their freedom to go anyplace they please.

The bomb-makers have reason to worry; tourists are not in the business of appeasement - note that they have returned to New York City - and they merely need a small reminder of how good the freedom to travel tastes.

The writer works on development issues at the Institute of Economic Affairs.


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