Tourism: fear and fragile economics

gary mason, editor, airport focusAirport Focus Editor Gary Mason on this month’s news

Another positive message from IATA about rising passenger numbers is always a welcome start to the year.

But the news that carriers have posted the strongest set of results since the post-Global Financial Crisis rebound in 2010 has to be tempered with ongoing and serious setbacks, some of which are entirely out of the commercial aviation industry’s control.

In particular, the threat of terrorism and the domino effect of very recent attacks directed specifically at tourists, is continuing to have a devastating effect on some regions. Sharm el Sheikh  – which has been an extremely popular destination for divers and tourists seeking a short to medium-haul escape from the northern European winter – is the most obvious casualty of the latest security “crisis.”

Since the crash of the St-Petersburg-bound Metrojet flight shortly after take off on October 31, and a statement from Moscow indicating that the downing of the aircraft was caused by an explosive device, the airport and the resort it serves, have been virtually quarantined by the British airports and carriers who flew regular services to this beautiful part of the Egyptian coast.

The airports and the carriers, of course, have not acted alone or out of hand. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has not specifically warned against staying in the Red Sea resorts of Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada but how should people get there? The guidelines on the safety of air travel have effectively forced the withdrawal of UK airlines from the market who have not flown to Sharm since November 17. What this means specifically, is that the airport is still considered an unsafe point of departure and arrival and the consequences to the local economy will be devastating.

While most carriers declared last year that they would suspend services until the Spring of 2016, a glimmer of hope that some flights will resume this month has now evaporated. This means that a popular and profitable revenue stream for carriers has been effectively shut down for an entire season  – an economic eternity in the budgetary cycle of low cost and charter carriers. But consider what effect this shutdown is having on the wider tourism industry of the affected area. How many hotels, restaurants, diving operators, taxi firms etc will suffer long term financial damage from the flying ban?

At an Airport Operators Association (AOA) conference at the end of last year, Andrew Swaffield, chief executive of Monarch Airlines underlined how difficult it is for tourism infrastructure to recover if it is starved of paying customers for a sustained period of time. He added that the tourism industry in Tunisia had been virtually decimated by the terrorist attack on mostly British tourists in June of last year. Will Sharm el Sheikh go the same way? He finished with an excellent observation. If violence or the threat of violence can deem “unsafe” an airport or a tourist destination, have the terrorists won?

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