Terrorism and Tourism

We are in south Sinai, the locus of some of the deadliest terrorist attacks on tourists in the last few years, and we were told by a co-guest at our hotel that locals had told them that a major attack of some sort was expected at or shortly after end of Ramadan, which is today. The end of Ramadan, or the Eid al-Fitr, is not especially known for being a time for terrorist activity, but I suppose any holiday may pose a tempting/meaningful date for an attacker. Are we afraid? Not really–but certain senses, honed in 2001, seem to be kicking back in, second thoughts about the kinds of luggage loaded onto our bus, a lowered bar for what constitutes “strange behavior” in others and what is the safest mode of transport. As I previously discussed in my post of 4.29, traveling does bring about somewhat greater risks of all kinds, and with it more paranoia about what might happen. All in all, a good time for some thoughts on terrorism and tourism.

From a traveler’s perspective, I think that there are three categories of terrorism, each of which carries different risks. The first is “domestic” terrorism, the best example of which is probably the many recent attacks in India, or the recent Damascus bombing. As a Korean traveler told me in northern Pakistan, Korean tourists aren’t worried about bombs in Pakistan because they’re aimed at other Pakistanis (say, ones of a different religious sect, or ones affiliated with a certain political movement) and not at tourists. While of course a traveler can still be caught in the crossfire (believe it or not, we ran into two separate tourists who said that they were very close to blasts in Lahore), at least some of these bombs are likely to go off in places where a foreign traveler is not particularly likely to venture. We are not the intended target.

The second category is terrorism directed at outside interests. The most prominent target in this category is perhaps an embassy, or a foreign military installation. This type of terrorism is perhaps most akin to a sort of informal war–the attackers mean not only to terrorize but to make a statement and inflict damage. Examples of this are of course many, including U.S. embassy bombings in any number of countries, the attack on the USS Cole, the bombing in Beirut.

The third category is, for travelers, the scariest: terrorism directed specifically at tourists, most likely in an effort to hurt tourism and decrease foreign influence in the country. The deadliest recent example of this is probably the Bali bomb of 2002, which killed 202 people from 21 (!) different countries. More recently, four people were targeted and killed in Yemen at a major tourist attraction. Hotel bombings fall somewhere between categories two and three, perhaps depending on the kind of hotel that is chosen (some hotels may be chosen for their international “brand,” sort of like an embassy, rather than the explicit desire to discourage foreign travelers).

The “prize” for this third, scariest category of terrorism goes to Egypt, not only for the number of incidents but the heinousness of the targets and methods. In 1997, in an incident known as the Luxor Massacre, a group of six attackers armed with guns and knives trapped and slaughtered 63 people, mostly tourists, in one of the main tourist attractions of Luxor, the Temple of Hatshepsut. In 2004, 2005 and 2006, terrorists killed 34, 88 and 23 people, respectively, in bombings in three different resort areas in the Sinai: Taba, Sharm el Sheikh and Dahab. Also in 2005, there were bombings or shootings near three of the most popular tourist sites in Cairo, the Khan al Khalili market, the Egyptian Museum and Saladdin’s Citadel.

Temple of Hatshepsut, Luxor, site of one of the grisliest terror attacks in recent history

Due to the layout of the ruin, tourists were “trapped” for slaughter.

Three separate suicide bombs were set off in Dahab on April 24, 2006.

A truck with explosives drove into the lobby of the Taba Hilton on October 7, 2004, one of three bombings that evening.

Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Yes, the odds of me or you happening to be in the wrong place at the wrong time are still fairly slim, but the probability increases dramatically when the attackers are choosing their targets specifically to target groups of tourists, places where tourists spend their time. We are their target. Maybe we shouldn’t “let the terrorists win” by avoiding places such as Egypt altogether, but as the lesson of September 11 taught, terrorists do like to hit the same targets over and over again (perhaps because they are simply the best targets), and Egypt as a country has a uniquely dangerous history in this respect, something visitors should be aware of. While there are countless police and military stationed all across Egypt, one wonders whether armed men begging for tips or sleeping in the backs of vehicles can really stop an attack, or whether such a presence would deter terrorists who are willing to die for their cause.

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