Just this week, the US and UK Governments issued warnings for its citizens not to travel within Europe. Last month the Eiffel tower was closed for visitors for there was a threat of a terrorist attack.
Many a time air planes come circling back after takeoff, for a mystery caller had said there is a bomb onboard. Panic sets in, crisis management plans are put to action, airports are closed, security is tightened, shoes are removed, belts taken off and body searches are made.
Single most negative phenomenon
All studies point to the fact that terrorism is the single most negative phenomenon to impact on tourism, ever. Be it in Egypt, Bali, Colombia, Jordon, Thailand, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Ireland, Mumbai, New York, Paris or London, terrorism is a sure dampener on the movement of travel. It prevents nations and people from realising the many socio-economic opportunities travel and tourism offers.
Up until 9/11 and its impact on the world, only some nations were singled out as terrorist hotspots and it was more or less an issue of travel warnings to those destinations that prevailed. With 9/11 and the realisation that terrorism had deeper roots than issues touching on a few racial groups or ‘freedom fighters’, the face of the whole equation changed.
There were consistent efforts by organisations such as the UNWTO, WTTC, ESCAP and PATA within earlier decades to work towards having visa restrictions eased to facilitate better movement of travellers around the world. Huge progress was seen in this area at the time, except in some countries where internal terrorist threats were at a peak.
The incident of 9/11 changed all of that too and today we are witnessing a reversal of that trend and even a selective process of the application of visa and other travel movement restrictions, together with more and more frequent calls for action on curbing terrorism.
Nothing new for Sri Lankans
Nothing in this is new to us Sri Lankans. For nearly 30 years we suffered this same fate. We had our airport attacked and airplanes destroyed on the tarmac, explosions close to hotels, lives lost, visas being imposed for our travel by almost every country in the world. We had an overall down on visitor arrivals with tourism fighting a constant battle with terrorism.
Today, thankfully, we have overcome those threats within this nation and are gearing to seek ways to establish a lasting peace to reap the fruits of a growing tourism.
We have as a nation, upon that beating, now realised that establishing that elusive lasting peace and keeping possible terrorist threats from raising its ugly head again is indeed about generating understanding between people, respecting each other, appreciating our different and diverse ways, providing social and economic opportunities, while treating each other with dignity and honour.
That then takes me to the question I raised in my column title. What’s common about tourism and terrorism? Indeed, they are both similar sounding terms, yet having meanings as diverse as anything we know to be, can be.
Tourism is a movement of people across seas and lands, their cultures and heritage, about creating bondages and friendships to generate better human understanding. It is about education and learning to be tolerant of each other. It is a movement that facilitates the appreciation of differences in each other’s way of doing things, faiths and beliefs and contributing to the greater good of people.
Terrorism, on the other hand is about using destructive methods to achieve an end. An end desired by a group of people who believe that using weapons of terror is the only way to gaining recognition and focus on an issue. It is about generating chaos and mayhem and causes disunity and disintegration of societies and people.
Both tourism and terrorism have at the very base of its operation aspects that warrant and demand the attention of all of human kind. In tourism, it is to ensure that it brings positive aspects of its delivery as intended and do not focus on merely the ‘having a good time’ aspects, at cost to the communities and societies it operates in.
Terrorism, on the other hand, reflects what is basically faulty in mankind’s attempt at seeking more at the expense of those who have little or no access to resources, rights or opportunities. It also reflects the intolerance of others’ ways that prevail and makes a violent call for its correction.
Tourism has most of the ingredients needed to address the causes of what has led to the creation of terrorism. It is about peace, about greater understanding and appreciation, about tolerance and at its very best, about sharing and caring.
Together with initiatives such as seeing a world where religious and cultural conflicts are minimal, weapons of mass destruction or weapons of any sort are taken away from the arsenal of all nations; powerful, emerging or otherwise, tourism has the potential of making its mark in building a better world.
Sri Lanka made a mark on the world at large, as a nation that defeated one of the most vicious terrorist groups in the world with much sacrifice and cost. Now it is the same nation that can demonstrate that it is doing everything in its power to address terrorism’s root causes.
We do have the resolve, but there is a long way to go down that road. Tourism is a strong pillar that is used to support our efforts and therein we may find the answers to heal old wounds, sooth hurt and learn of ways to find unity within our diversity.
For both tourism and terrorism, desired outcomes will depend not on words alone but on solid, committed action by all, taken on with a strong and well-focused will to succeed.
(Renton de Alwis is a former Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism serving two terms during 2000-2002 and again from 2007-2008. He served as Head of the Asia Division of the Pacific Asia Travel Association(PATA) based in Singapore from 1990-96 and as CEO of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore from 1997-99. He also served as a Chief Technical Advisor and consultant with the ADB, UNDP, UNWTO, ESCAP, UNICEF and the ILO. Now in retirement, Renton lives away from Colombo in the Deep South of Sri Lanka and is involved in writing and social activism. He can be contacted at email@example.com.)