Flying in the face of fear
British travellers are shirking terror warnings and taking to the skies in record numbers.
For the travel industry it was a case of unfortunate timing. The annual bash of the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) in November 2001 had already been booked in Lisbon well in advance. Instead of the usual upbeat festivities the mood was sombre, and the attendees seemed pale and dishevelled. The chairman described industry trading as ‘more difficult than during the [first] Gulf war’ (1), while images of rotating globes flashed across a black screen with the prophetic message: ‘The world will never be the same again.’
The aftermath of 11 September had catastrophic effects on the outlook of the travel industry. Almost immediately, 3,000 British travel agents lost their jobs, winter bookings dropped by 30 per cent, and summer bookings for 2002 halved from the year before. The media painted a bleak vision of the future of air travel, with glamorous air-stewards replaced by armed guards patrolling the cockpit. The Centre for Economics and Business Research predicted a reduction in long-haul travel to the USA, the Middle East and Asia, and a recovery period of at least two years (2).
Fast forward to 2004 and – by the garish predictions of analysts – we should all be sat at home leaving air travel to those with an appetite for risk and adventure. Instead we find ourselves in the midst of a travel boom. UK travel is at an all-time high – by Christmas, it is predicted that summer bookings for 2005 will be up by five per cent on last year. Cruises are booming, with a 35 per cent growth in the past 12 months. And the folks at ABTA who only three years ago were plagued by an impending sense of doom, now brush off the effects of international terrorism on air travel as if it was stupid to have even suggested a connection.
Untangling the link between the state of the world and the mindset of the holidaymaker is tricky. In the post-9/11 world, this relationship is deeply equivocal – blending together elements of rationality, past experience and a dose of old-fashioned scepticism. During the lead-up to the war in Iraq in early 2003, international bookings fell by 20 per cent, but as soon as the war was pronounced over this figure recovered (even though the violence waged on). When Basque separatist group ETA issued warnings to tourists visiting Spanish coastal resorts in 2001 it had no significant effect on bookings to the region.
Industry experts point to a uniquely British sense of resilience among travellers. ‘We have lived with terrorism for 30 years’, Sean Tipton of ABTA told me. ‘British holidaymakers seem able to draw a distinction between a potential threat and the actual likelihood of it affecting them.’ Even so, our sense of resolve has been thoroughly tested. The deployment of tanks outside Heathrow airport in February 2003 was a low-point in what has seemed like a cry-wolf campaign by a government determined to make terrorism a very real issue in the mind of the public. But rather than allow the scare tactics of politicians to dictate their travel agenda, many have responded with pragmatism. ‘Culture, adventure and the need to experience difference is more important than the potential threat’, commented one 27-year-old international traveller.
There is a renewed appetite for far-reaching destinations. Market reports coming out of ABTA’s November 2004 conference showed that, contrary to the predictions of 2001, demand for long-haul travel is higher than ever before. Most notable is the massive increase in trips to United Arab Emirates (up 108 per cent from a year ago), despite ongoing instability in the Middle East. Meanwhile Malaysia (up 32 per cent) follows closely – showing recovery from the Bali effect of 2002. The USA is still the most popular UK winter destination, with a rise of 13 per cent on last year. These destinations, all at one stage tarnished by the brush of terrorism, are now growth areas that are pulling in revenue for travel agents. The initial shock of an attack may create turbulence, but its effects don’t seem to linger for long.
The lure of exotic destinations and cheap prices are also distracting from the terrorist threat. ‘There is a perception that this is the finest time there’s ever been to travel, which funnily enough, is another result of 9/11’, Simon Calder, travel editor of the Independent, told me. ‘The travel industry has had to wake up to the fact that their cost level had been far too high for far too long. Now you can travel anywhere in the world for under £1,000 and things you couldn’t aspire to 10 years ago are now within your reach.’ The growth of low-cost travel has changed the landscape of flying, forcing big players such as British Airways to re-evaluate their prices to compete on a level footing.
With more destinations and a clear growth in the premium sector market (holidays costing between £1,000 and £1,500 have risen by 16 per cent in the past four years) the choices and activities available are more enticing than ever before. ‘There is more cash readily available to people’, says media analyst Bill Barker. ‘Holidays have increased in priority among young professionals. That is particularly prevalent if you look at the number of people who are willing to take career breaks to travel.’
There are some fears that have more of an impact on the mindset of travellers. According to ABTA’s Sean Tipton, the public feels more threatened by events that appear to be out of human control. ‘The outbreak of SARS had a devastating effect on tourism in those areas while it was going on’, he said. ‘The idea that anyone could be hit left travellers feeling more vulnerable. However, once the outbreak was controlled, things were back to normal very quickly.’
The appeal of the economical, accessible and exotic holiday package is countering the repel of the terrorist threat. In an age where it is too easy to shut ourselves off to the world, it is refreshing to see that the public won’t allow the pre-emptive agenda of politicians or media fright get in the way of its priorities. The uncertainty of the world, it seems, is now just part of the package.
Kunal Dutta is an intern at spiked. He has lived in America and worked in the advertising industry.
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