Saturday, April 07, 2012

The shrinking holiday globe for tourists

Despite threatened strikes, fuel shortages, a lack of security staff and fewer pennies in our pockets, it seems escaping austerity Britain has never been more appealing. Some two million holidaymakers will be flocking to our ferry ports, train stations and airports this Easter for a foreign break. What has changed is not whether we go, but where, as socio-political issues, terrorism, natural disasters and monetary constraints have combined to tear up the holiday map as we once knew it.

The British travelling public has long been stoical in the face of adversity. After bomb attacks, disease outbreaks, earthquakes and floods, Britons were usually the last ones out and the first back in – particularly when there were bargains to be had. But no longer.

As social unrest swept the Arab world after President Ben Ali fled Tunisia in January last year, so tourism to North Africa went with it. Since the turn of the millennium, increasing numbers of Britons had grown tired of the Spanish costas’ traditional package fare and expensive euro, favouring instead Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt for good value and guaranteed sunshine. Britain’s operators adjusted their brochures accordingly. Then suddenly Tunisia was in revolt, President Mubarak was pushed from office in Egypt, Colonel Gaddafi was felled, Yemen’s president was forced to sign away his powers, Morocco and Bahrain were witnessing waves of protests, and Syria was ablaze.

A year later, Mounir Abdel Nour, Egypt’s minister of tourism, has announced that the number of tourist arrivals fell by a third last year, while many in the industry claim that the situation is far worse. As Nigel Richardson wrote in these pages following a visit to Egypt last month, some hotels are only 10 per cent occupied, and key historical sights are still only attracting a fraction of the normal tourist crowds.

Even the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh – 320 miles from the turmoil of Cairo’s Tahrir Square – is struggling. The regular stream of British and Russian tourists in search of sun, sea and scuba-diving, has fallen to a trickle. Everyone, from hoteliers and restaurateurs to market stallholders and belly-dancing troupes, is feeling the pinch; some are defaulting on rent, others are temporarily closing shop. Even with a promised £8 billion investment in tourism from the government over the next five years, Egypt will need a lengthy period of social and political stability if it is to win back the holidaymakers.

Tunisia has suffered just as keenly from tourist apathy, but here it is more an issue of perception than reality. The sensationalist television coverage of the short-lived Jasmine revolution seemed to exaggerate the severity of the uprisings, which took place far from tourist areas. The country remains as safe and peaceful as it ever has been; yet visitor numbers have fallen by half in the year after the revolution. The new regime needs to play the public relations game – and fast – which is not easy when 50 per cent of your foreign exchange has been wiped out by the tourist decline.

Morocco, too, has seen a marked fall in visitors, though protests there against King Mohammed VI were comparatively limited. Jordan and Lebanon are also suffering a downturn in tourism as the architectural treasures of Petra and Baalbek remain unseasonably quiet.

In Kenya, it is terrorism and kidnappings that are keeping Britons away. At least six people were killed in Nairobi in a series of explosions last month, but it is a spate of recent tourist kidnappings near the Somali border that have preyed on holidaymakers’ worst fears. The Foreign Office warning against travel in this area has put a large number of resorts, including those in the popular Lamu Archipelago, out of reach of ordinary travellers, but the impact is being felt farther afield. According to Niel Alobaidi, commercial director for Hayes & Jarvis, one of Britain’s leading long-haul tour operators, bookings to Kenya are down by almost 60 per cent on last year.

“What has surprised us is that South Africa and Tanzania have also seen much reduced booking levels,” he said. “Previously these destinations have performed strongly whenever Kenya has suffered, but the current issues appear to be affecting demand all across eastern and southern Africa.”

The big winner seems to be Spain, with visitors up by eight per cent since the Arab Spring began. Portugal, France and Italy have also experienced rises, while Florida and Dubai are enjoying extra bookings as alternatives to Egypt and Tunisia for early-season sun.

Greece, however, is bracing itself for another summer of discontent. The wave of violent protests in Athens and Thessaloniki against the government’s austerity measures is deterring some holidaymakers from visiting even far-flung Greek islands. That wasn’t helped by William Hague’s warning earlier this month that British holidaymakers should register with authorities in Greece and prepare to evacuate if the crisis escalated.

“To claim that Britons living in Greece or visiting on holiday are likely to need emergency evacuation is ridiculous,” said Derek Moore, chairman of the Association of Independent Tour Operators. “The riots in London, Manchester and Birmingham last summer were on a significantly bigger scale than anything in Greece – yet did the Home Secretary, Theresa May, advise people against visiting the Cotswolds or the Lake District?” The reality, however, is that bookings have slowed considerably – and the tourist board is desperately short of funding, just when promotion is vital to remind holidaymakers of Greece’s appeal.

It is not just the short-haul holiday map that is being redrawn. Japan continues to suffer from the fallout from the tsunami and subsequent Fukushima nuclear catastrophe. Even hotels in Niseko, the leading ski resort in the far north of Hokkaido, have struggled to fill their rooms despite one of the greatest seasons for snow in living memory.

Turmoil has also reached the sandy shores of the Maldives, where the country’s first democratically elected leader was overthrown earlier this month. The Foreign Office has removed its warning against travel to the capital, MalĂ©, although it says that further demonstrations are “likely”, and human-rights groups continue to urge holidaymakers to avoid any resorts linked to those involved in the coup.

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