Trouble in Paradise
Tourism in the Age of Terrorism
Hotel beach in Taba, Egypt
Terrorism is making life difficult for many vacation destinations, with European travelers choosing holidays closer to home. The travel industry is fundamentally changing as a result and many once popular places are facing ruin. By SPIEGEL Staff
He quickly performed yet another inspection of the surveillance cameras, got an update on the status of maintenance work being performed on the bomb detector and went over his calculations on the future strength of his team of guards for the umpteenth time. Now all security expert Mohab Bakr needs is his cigarettes, then he'll be ready for his most important appointment of the day, maybe even of the season: the security meeting with the managers of the Egypt's seaside resort Taba Heights. Bakr is in charge of security.
His senior-most supervisor, "Mister Jokim," will also be at today's meeting. His real name is Joachim Schmitt, the German vice president of hotels and resorts for the Orascom Group, which owns Taba Heights. The international corporation operates 25 locations with nearly 15,000 beds between the Nile and Red Sea, but business has seen better days. The unrest following Hosni Mubarak's deposition in 2011 along with Islamist terrorism have taken their toll on the Swiss-based company's share price, which has fallen from 150 Swiss francs to below 10. "Mister Jokim" has come to Taba to talk about the security situation -- security, in these trying times, has become an invaluable commodity.
Bakr, a bulky man in his early 50s, wears a dark mustache, light linen trousers and a blue and white plaid shirt. When Bakr makes the rounds inspecting the resort, he blends right in among the guests.
But now he's back in his office, situated directly above the resort's central laundromat at the far edge of the complex, talking about how he protects the tourists.
Bakr's greatest wish is that visitors feel safe again in Egypt. He wants to see the French, Swiss and German tourists return to the hotels, the coral reefs and the deep blue sea.
The area Bakr oversees is enormous. At 4 million square meters, or 43 million square feet, is about as big as 616 football fields. Three security perimeters encircle the resort village, which has its own golf course, shopping center and clinic. The main road, which continues on to the Egyptian-Israeli border town of Taba, is secured by military outposts fortified with machine guns and sandbags. The main entrance to the resort is guarded by police and Bakr's security team, a force of around 100 men. The bottom of every approaching vehicle is inspected with mirrors and sniffed by bomb dogs. The guards make no exceptions, not even for the Peugeot of "General Mohab," as they call Bakr.
The name comes from Bakr's former life, back when he was a brigadier general in the Egyptian military. As a liaison officer on the Sinai Peninsula, he maintained contact with the Israelis, multinational troops and the Palestinians. He has photos of himself sitting at a negotiating table across from Israeli officers and in the Gaza office of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
He even worked for Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, back when the now-Egyptian president was still the head of Egypt's military intelligence.
After three decades of service as a brigadier general, Bakr retired. "The stress was too much," he says. His current position, commanding security guards at Taba Heights, is much more relaxed -- and the pay is better too. "This new job is a piece of cake," he says.
It's not the kind of thing you'd expect to hear on the Sinai Peninsula, which is considered a stronghold of Islamic terrorists and Germany's Foreign Ministry has officially issued a "partial travel warning" for all of Egypt. It's the kind of cautionary notice that's read carefully by German travelers -- like the Koslowski family.
Sylke and Ulrich Koslowski are nice people. She's a cashier at Lidl, the German discount supermarket chain, while he works as a machinist. They live in Warstein, a town that is, geographically speaking, smack in the middle of Germany. From the balcony of their second-story apartment, they look out upon the green undulations of the Sauerland, a low range of hills. The Koslowskis like to go for walks and they love where they live. Yet the walls of their apartment are decorated with framed photographs of the many trips they've taken. They've always loved to travel.
Hungary, Bulgaria, Mallorca, Italy and Fuerteventura along with city trips to Amsterdam, London and Brussels. They were in Abu Dhabi and the Maldives. They wanted to go to Turkey next -- Istanbul perhaps, or to Antalya, where the prices are tempting for so many Germans.
They're worldly people, interested in new places.
But then came terror -- and with it, fear.
This year, the Koslowskis aren't going to Turkey or the Maldives. Instead, they've chosen Fehmarn, a Baltic Sea island off Germany's northern coast. Their choice to travel domestically is a common one these days and Germany's beach resorts are fully booked.
Such travel choices made by the Koslowskis of this world, totally normal Germans, are having a profound impact. Due to their anxieties, their fears and their trip cancellations, hotels in Tunisia are going bankrupt and Turkey is losing a significant chunk of its usual tourism revenue.
Sylke Koslowski once visited a mosque in the Maldives, which was very impressive, she says.
But today, she's afraid. She fears a rage she does not understand. She doesn't want to have the feeling of "being accepted in these countries just because tourists bring in money" without actually being welcome.
Vacation was once a microcosm of globalization, one that was accessible to everyone. Average Joes, cashiers and machinists alike, would fly in crammed discount jets via Dubai and Singapore to Phuket, Thailand. The diving instructor would be from Kuala Lumpur, Muslim and married to a Buddhist. At night, everyone would drink Dutch beer and eat Thai soup and ribs with sauerkraut. It was pleasant and comfortable, but it was not a situation that was built to last. It was delusional to believe such a comfort zone could be maintained forever, whether people were paying for it or not. Many such vacation destinations were in countries where society was in a precarious state of tension, aggravated by political repression, poverty and hatreds.
But are tourists really interested in all that? Of course not. Tourists are in search of simplicity, says crisis and communications expert Peter Höbel, who advises firms in the travel industry.
They want a place where they are removed from psychological strain, from incomprehensible anger -- and they want to be loved.
The tsunami in December 2004, for instance, cost more people their lives than all terrorist attacks since then. But that was a natural disaster, an act of God. Terrorism, on the other hand, is the personification of evil. It undermines our self-image as travelers; we want to be smiled at and greeted as friends. This illusion is currently being destroyed.
But isn't fear of terrorist attacks, rationally speaking, completely overblown? From the sober perspective of statisticians and risk analysts, the answer is yes. The probability of falling victim to terrorist violence in a foreign country is extremely low. You're much more likely to get into a car accident on the way to the airport or suffer a heart attack inside the terminal because the check-in line is so long.
Risk analysts have come up with a unit of measurement for death called the micromort. It measures the probability of dying an unnatural death on a an otherwise normal day. One micromort is the equivalent of a one-in-a-million chance that someone will die. A holiday flight, for example, is relatively safe. You can fly from Düsseldorf to Antalya and back and only expose yourself to a risk of less than 0.5 micromorts. A Caesarean section, on the other hand, has a statistical probability of 170 micromorts, while bypass surgery clocks in at 16,000 micromorts.
And when Ulrich Koslowski rides home from Fehmarn on his Harley-Davidson, a trip that covers a distance of about 400 kilometers (248.5 miles), he'll hit a risk factor of 40 micromorts.
That's not very high, but it's higher than was the risk of dying in a terror attack in France in 2015. Death by terrorism is as likely as death by falling coconut, which kills 150 people a year.
Or by walking backwards off a cliff while taking a selfie -- a fairly new kind of fatal accident.
But vacation isn't a probability calculation. It is an emotional journey. And fear breeds more fear. Tourists are social creatures -- and not many of them would enjoy the prospect of sitting alone near the hotel buffet, surrounded by melancholic waiters.
Another factor came into play as the Koslowskis decided upon Fehmarn. It's an invention from northern Germany, and it first hit the market this year -- a beach chair that transforms into a canopy bed where you can spend the night. At 1.3 meters wide and 2.4 meters long, it can be zipped up and it has portholes for peeking outside. From the confines of its walls, you can look up and see the stars and listen to the waves breaking against the shore.
Arne Schultchen has a particularly nice way of explaining the success of this beach basket. He runs a design agency in Hamburg and it was his company that developed this novelty and the philosophy to go along with it. The beach chair, Schultchen says, represents shelter and security: "The beach chair is kind to me, it's reliable -- the opposite of a terrorist." That's certainly one way to see it. The beach chair is certainly symbolic of an important trend in tourism. Since 2005, the number of overnight visitors to Germany has jumped 27 percent, and in the last year alone, it rose 2.9 percent to 436 million people.
Fear of terrorism is dividing the world into winners and losers. Spain, Germany, Greece and Italy are profiting. In Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, small family-owned companies and large hotel chains alike are going under.
The year 2016 could be a decisive one: The winners are experiencing the full power of the tourism industry, one of the biggest economic sectors on the planet. In the EU, there are as many people working in tourism as there are in the auto industry or the agricultural sector.
The losers see themselves in a war of sorts, one in which today's enemy was yesterday's friend. Their mode of attack is the fact that they no longer show up. Unemployed Egyptians, desperate Tunisians -- that's how new refugees are made, or how legions of young men become susceptible to the siren song of Islamist preachers.
Survival Loans in Paradise
Hayatli Simsek enjoyed his work the most when he was traveling with his guests in the Taurus Mountains, where the women still bake pita bread by hand and children swim in the turquoise river. For Simsek, a travel guide, these were special excursions: "I wanted to show them how we live."
Simsek is a gaunt 50-year-old with a tattoo of a stylized heart on his forearm. He goes by Hajo -- that's what people used to call him back when he lived in the southern German city of Heilbronn.
Simsek was born to a family of guest workers from Anatolia. He played football with the other boys from his neighborhood, became a stonemason and married in Germany before having two daughters.
Fourteen years ago, his wife divorced him and Simsek needed a fresh start. So he went to Turkey. Things weren't so bad -- at first.
Simsek sits under a pomegranate tree in his yard in Side, a seaside town located about 60 kilometers from Antalya. He looks at the beach bordering his property and talks about how he built a new life for himself here on the Turkish Riviera after more than 30 years in Germany.
After completing his tour guide training, he convinced his boss to buy a white Mercedes bus. He painted colorful waterfalls and cliffs onto the side and began offering "Mountain safaris" for 20 a ticket. The bus seats 50 people.
Business was going well. On some days, he even had to rent a second bus. But now? Practically every week, a bomb goes off somewhere in the country, or a terrorist detonates a suicide belt.
More than 300 people have died since June 2015 in nearly two dozen attacks by Islamic State or the banned Kurdistan Workers Party. On the last Tuesday in June, three suicide bombers killed 45 people and injured 240 others at Atatürk Airport in Istanbul. Ankara suspects Islamic State was behind the attack.
In the first five months of 2016, the number of foreign visitors to Antalya dropped by more than 40 percent. Economists worry this could amount to a 7 billion loss in revenue. Along the Turkish Riviera, almost all the hotels have had to take out loans.
Until recently, Turkey's travel industry was generating more than 6 percent of the country's gross domestic product with nearly one in 10 jobs depending on tourism. The sector, observers say, has sufficient financial reserves to keep going for a year, two at the most. After that, 30 to 40 percent of the hotels and restaurants will have to close, which would cost thousands of jobs.
Simsek walks along the empty beach promenade in Side, past closed hotels and restaurants. The last time he took guests into the Taurus Mountains was three weeks ago, he says. "If things continue like this, I'll be bankrupt in half a year."
Turkey isn't the only travel destination that has lost its innocence. The world has become a dangerous place, or so it seems. In 2015 alone, there were dozens of attacks and numerous kidnappings outside Iraq and Syria for which Islamic State claimed responsibility. Tourists are especially "soft targets."
Their behaviors and their routes are easily predictable, they're unsuspecting, sometimes naive and unprotected, and they don't know their way around. They're the perfect victims.
It's just past 6 p.m. when the black car pulls up. It's a single, modest-looking sedan without a police escort or cordons or sirens -- which is remarkable, because Greek politicians tend to be fond of making a grand entrance. As soon as Elena Kountoura, Greece's minister of tourism, gets out of the car, people begin approaching her and she joins the event's organizer to have him explain the set-up.
A former model and athlete, Kountoura is probably Greece's most popular politician.
Tourism is the only sector in Greece where things are actually doing quite well, and Kountoura is the ruler of this empire of hotels and beaches, restaurants, camping sites, bars and souvenir shops. Today she has come to Nemea, an ancient town on the Peloponnese peninsula where the Nemean Games are held every four years. The games have their roots in Greek antiquity and pay tribute to Zeus.
It's a perfect, warm summer evening and Kountoura is in a good mood. Last year, more than 26 million tourists came to Greece, an increase of 7 percent over 2014. It's an industry of utmost importance for the crisis-ridden country, employing more than a million Greeks, or one-fifth of all workers, even if it's mostly seasonal.
Is Greece profiting from the tourism crisis in the rest of the world?
Kountoura says that Greece has had its problems too. The arrival of the refugees, she says, caught the country off guard at first. But, she says, "our people, this beleaguered nation, responded to the refugee crisis with humanity, hospitality, generosity and kindness. This was a hugely important message to the world, that counterweighted the negative publicity of the refugee crisis."
But things didn't unfold quite as harmoniously as Kountoura would have it. On Kos, for example, the island that lay along the migrants' route last year, there was discontent and unease among many vacationers. People visiting the island didn't want to be confronted with the sight of refugees and their suffering during their vacation, and they certainly didn't want to stroll past them in their bathing suits along the beach promenade.
Traveling for pleasure is a relatively new invention. In the past, ordinary people only traveled when necessary -- unless they were greedy or crazy, say, an adventurer, merchant, missionary or a man possessed. It wasn't until the 18th and 19th centuries that literary greats glorified travel as a romantic experience, a way to discover oneself. In the 20th century, thanks to flat-rate trips and budget travel agencies, globe-trotting was democratized and mechanized.
But it wasn't all innocent. Western tourists tromped through isolated villages, snapping photos along the way, and women in hotpants sauntered through Oriental bazaars. Tourists put their money, cameras and way of life on display, as well as their skin and sexuality.
And now, in the 21st century? Are we witnessing the end of this lack of inhibition?
A Spanish Revival
Port el Kantaoui
The Royal Kenz Hotel in Port El Kantaoui is an ocher-colored building on the beach with bubbling fountains, well-maintained swimming pools and ebullient staff. Inside are 950 beds.
Many of the structures here are like this one, but the Royal Kenz stands out because of its location.
A year ago, right next door at the Hotel Riu Imperial Marhaba, the terrorist Seifeddine Rezgui Yacoubi pulled a Kalashnikov out of an umbrella and opened fire, killing 38 people, all tourists, most of them British, before he was overpowered.
Since then, a dark cloud has hung over this stretch of coastline. Restaurants and small entrepreneurs have given up and sun umbrellas rot on the beach. The Royal Marhaba is sealed off by a fence topped with razor wire.
The livelihoods of roughly 2 million Tunisians depend on tourism. The turmoil that followed the Arab Spring was already keeping some foreigners away, but it wasn't until the dual attacks in 2015 -- one in March in front of the Bardo National Museum in Tunis and another in June on the beach in Port El Kantaoui -- that revenues from tourism plummeted by 35 percent.
Who's to blame for this situation? The politicians, says Ridha Jegham, because they're the ones making people afraid. Jegham, 50, has an athletic build and sports a crew cut. He's the manager of the Royal Kenz.
Jegham gives a tour of his empty hotel. At a lonely bar sits a man named Mehdi, a hulking security guard in a red polo shirt. From his perch, he watches over the eight rows of beach recliners for guests of the Royal Kenz. Three Russian families have claimed the first row, dragging the chairs from the shade into the sun, right up to water. It's almost only Russians who ever come here anymore. Tunisia became their destination of choice over Egypt after the attack on a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai desert.
The hotel personnel would prefer the English; they're not as surly as the Russians. But British tour operators are shunning the country, along with most Belgians and Dutch. British airlines don't even fly into the area anymore.
Contributing to hotel manager Ridha Jegham's tragedy is also a great misunderstanding. Jegham thought the tourists were like friends who were coming for personal reasons. He believed there was something akin to sincerity or loyalty in this business.
He says his country, Tunisia, has emulated European ideals like no other country in the region.
Freedom, democracy, self-determination, responsibility -- born out of the Arab Spring revolution of 2011 and the free elections that followed. He points out that there are satirical programs on TV now, something that would have been unthinkable before. Attending university is free, and education is just as compulsory for Tunisian children as it is for those in German or France.
Jegham speaks with an air of equal parts pride and bitterness. It's like he's saying: We deserve better.
"We are peaceful and liberal. We're modern," Jegham says. He doesn't understand why the Europe that was once so eager to bask in the sun on his beaches and take full advantage of the eternal North African summer isn't showing more solidarity and sending its tourists.
The day began wonderfully for Víctor Tatay, and it's only going to get better. Tatay has been in a glorious mood since the beginning of the vacation season. After all, he's doing what he does best: finding jobs for his compatriots.
Tatay is the director for the Valencia region at Spain's leading temporary employment agency, Adecco. He's 35 with a neatly trimmed beard, dark suit and a handkerchief sticking out of his breast pocket. He sits in his office inside an Art Nouveau house in the bustling central neighborhood of Valencia. As he gazes up at the ornate stucco ceiling, he talks, offering one statistic after another.
He's been at Adecco for 12 years and he likes the job. Twenty-five offices report to him, from Castellón to the border with Andalusia, including 120 staffers. He hopes to find jobs for most of the region's 450,000 unemployed during the next three months of the summer season. The demand is there, with the popular tourist destinations Denia, Benidorm and Alicante urgently needing workers.
All three locations are in Tatay's area. He's an important figure for Spain at a very important time.
This country is the most significant beneficiary of the shift in the tourism sector. Last year, 68 million people poured into the country -- 22 million more than Spain's entire population. By May 2016, 25 million tourists had already visited, an 11 percent spike compared to the same period the year before.
The onslaught has been a blessing. When the financial crisis struck Spain, driving savings banks to their knees and collapsing the country's construction sector in 2008, millions of people lost their jobs.
Six million women and men were left without work during the worst of the crisis and there are still close to 4 million in search of a job.
That's where Tatay comes in: He's the man who feeds the industry as it calls for laborers, the man who turns the unemployed into friendly receptionists, waiters, cooks, maids or drivers.
Tatay's people have a special suitcase always at the ready for testing new candidates. Inside it are a tray, silverware and a bottle. "The young man must demonstrate that he can set a table, that he knows how to serve dishes and pour wine."
Tatay looks at the clock. Time to leave; he's got a busy day ahead of him.
Mohab Bakr, the former general and security expert, turns on his computer and prints out a military map. "Here," he points to the map, "that's the Sinai, with an area of 61,000 square kilometers. And this up here, in the right-hand corner, on the border with Gaza, that's the really dangerous part. It's 800 square kilometers, max. Here on the map it's about as big as my thumb. That's it!"
So is the Sinai not actually dangerous? What about the terror attack in February 2014 that killed four people? And the bombing in Dahab that claimed the lives of more than 20 people, including a boy from Germany? And doesn't Islamic State have an offshoot it calls the "Province of Sinai"?
Bakr says he can appreciate "certain concerns tourists may have." But what he cannot fathom is how his Egypt, his Sinai, are being put under quarantine. Because airlines are no longer flying to Sharm el-Sheikh, only one of the hotels in Taba Heights is still in operation.
"Did the German Foreign Ministry issue travel warnings for France after the Paris attacks?" Bakr asks indignantly. "Did anyone advise against trips to Florida after the Orlando massacre? There's a double standard in the West!"
Then Joachim Schmitt, the vice president of the hotel group, finally arrives. Bakr hurries to the lobby, where the meeting is starting. Bakr reports on the cabling work being done on the 40 newly installed surveillance cameras. Should monitoring be expanded? Schmitt dismisses the notion, out of respect for the privacy of the guests.
But what more can we do? Bakr reports on the positive experiences his team has had with the bomb detector they recently acquired. It's a Russian model, expensive but efficient. Schmitt approves of Bakr's suggestion to replace bomb sniffing dogs at entrances with more detectors after Bakr explains that machines don't need to take breaks. The investment could pay off if guests start visiting the resort again in greater numbers.
Schmitt looks at the number of bookings. There are more reservations from Jordan, good. At some point, he believes, the Russians will start coming back too. And the Germans as well. He nods. Taba Heights should be prepared for when things get better again.
On the website of Germany's Foreign Ministry, the travel advisories for Egypt still read:
"Travel to the northern Sinai Peninsula and the Egyptian-Israeli border region is strongly discouraged. This also includes the Taba resort area."
The Koslowskis are taking that advice to heart.
By Dieter Bednarz, Giorgos Christides, Julia Amalia Heyer, Ralf Hoppe, Maximilian Popp, Jan Puhl and Helene Zuber