July 29, 2005

War Against Tourism

When I first arrived in Beirut in April I wondered if I had made a terrible mistake. For the first time in my life I went to sleep wondering if my hotel would explode in the night. Obviously it did not. And I only worried about it once. After spending a day walking around the city I realized I was probably 1,000 times more likely to be struck by a moving car than a car bomb. (Lebanon is one of those places where stop signs are suggestions and urban speed limits are dictated by physics rather than laws.)

At first I was amazed at how rapidly I adjusted to new dangers in my environment. I was only consciously bothered by the vague new (to me) threat of car bombs for less than 24 hours. But thinking about it in hindsight I shouldn’t have been bothered at all, nor should I have been surprised that I was. I wasn’t afraid of car bombs per se. I was afraid of the Middle East. The fact is, though, that the Middle East looks a lot scarier from a distance than it does up close. The fear I felt during the first 24 hours was the baggage I brought with me from the United States. The reality of Lebanon (which is overwhelmingly friendly and peaceful) went to work on me and put me as ease very quickly.

Far more people were killed in London by terrorists on one single day (July 7) than were killed by terrorists in Lebanon every day for the past 15 years put together. When it comes to terrorist violence only Baghdad can compare to New York City. But I’m not at all afraid to go to New York as a tourist. It wouldn’t even occur to me that I shouldn’t go to London or Madrid. The reason I’m not afraid of those places is because they are Western, not because they are objectively safer. Lebanon is much safer than Britain right now.

Terrorism in the Middle East sure does have its effects, though. Because of the region’s reputation in the West, it takes precious little. My hotel in Beirut was almost completely empty. My four-star hotel room was discounted by 75 percent in a desperate attempt to lure tourists back to the country. I don’t know how much money Lebanon’s tourism industry has lost since Rafik Hariri was killed, but it must be incredible. Empty hotels that charge only 25 percent of their usual rate are just hemorrhaging money.

Targeting a Middle Eastern country’s tourism industry, then, really pays off. The bastards get one hell of a bang for their buck. (Pardon the expression.)

Austin Bay writes about the Islamist war against tourism in Egypt at Tech Central Station:
Call it the terrorists' War on Tourism — a war waged by jihadists that long predates 9-11, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Last week's terror attacks on Egypt's Sharm el-Sheikh resorts left nearly 90 dead. The attacks also sent an economic and political shockwave throughout the rest of Egypt.

Jihadist terrorists wage a war to create and maintain poverty. In Egypt, damaging the tourist industry does just that. Tourists climbing the Pyramids, sailing on the Nile and sipping coffee in Cairo are a source of very good jobs.

In 1992, the jihadists launched an “insurrection” against the Egyptian government, and the tourist industry was an immediate target. Since 1992, there have been at least 15 major attacks on tourists — an advertising campaign of high explosive and bullets designed to undermine the Egyptian economy.

For example, in 1993, jihadists targeted Cairo's Tahrir Square, killing a Swede, a Turk and an Egyptian. Eighteen were injured. In 1997, six terrorists massacred 58 foreign tourists (many of them Germans) and four Egyptians in an attack at Luxor's Temple of Hatshepsut. Islamist extremists argue that “pagan” temples desecrate Muslim lands, so if the jihadists ever take power in Egypt, Luxor might be razed. Don't laugh — the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.

Here's a sketch of the terrorists' counter-tourism strategy: Attacks on foreign visitors guarantee instant international headlines, especially in the visitors' home nations. All terrorist attacks are designed to sow doubt in the local government's ability to protect lives, property and businesses, but the tourist industry is a very international industry and attacking it is an easy way to discourage international investment.

These attacks also isolate and impoverish individuals who work in tourist industries — people who tend to be multilingual and aware that “foreigners aren't devils.”
After 9/11 we all told ourselves over and over and over again that we’ll hand the terrorists a victory of we let them dictate our behavior. Hundreds of people in my city of Portland all traveled to New York City together to do what little they could to give New York’s economy a shot in the arm. They did it deliberately in defiance of the terrorists. The trip was planned for this reason and this reason only. They would not have gone to New York at all when they did if jets had not first been flown into the towers.

That’s the right way to handle it. I know many of you think will think I’m crazy if I suggest choosing the Middle East as a tourist destination in defiance of terrorism. But that’s exactly what I’m doing. It isn’t really any more dangerous there than it is here. (Well, Iraq is more dangerous, but I’m not suggesting Baghdad for your holiday.) Go to Cairo. Go to Beirut. Don’t go to Europe instead because you think you’ll be safer. You won’t be. You just won’t be. But Al Qaeda would like you to think that you would be.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at July 29, 2005 12:43 PM
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