Marvin Cetron, president of Forecasting International, is a futurist who works closely with the CIA, the Department of Defense and the National Security Agency. We have asked him to write articles for Travel Weekly over the past few years on issues related to the future of travel, and in most of those he has touched upon the convergence of tourism and terrorism.
But this past June, in the introduction to a two-part series we published listing 10 predictions related to travel, he wrote, "We have said everything about terrorism that needs to be said. There is no reason to overdramatize this issue. True, the world contains many would-be terrorists. Yet there are only a few hundred of the trained, supremely dangerous variety responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Most are hiding in the backcountry of Pakistan, unable to do much harm. ... The chances of being struck by terrorists are considerably slimmer than those of being struck by lightning. It is time to turn our attention to more immediate matters."
Do the recent events in Mumbai make a mockery of his words?
Those involved in tourism in India might wonder if Cetron has a cool head or a cold heart when he talks of "overdramatizing" terrorism. But in fairness to Cetron, he had previously predicted in Travel Weekly that hotels and restaurants -- "soft targets" -- were much more likely to be hit by terrorists in the future than were airplanes or other highly secure objectives. In the preamble quoted above, he was simply offering an explanation for why he was not going to repeat what he had already written.
But I and others in the industry have expressed sentiments similar to Cetron's, warning against overdramatizing the likelihood of terrorism. The rational side of me finds comfort in statistics, and fear of an attack has thus far not had a major impact on my travel decisions. I was back on an airplane on Sept. 14, 2001, the first day I could get a flight to San Jose, Calif., after the events of 9/11, and I made the decision to move to New York from Texas four days later. It's not that I didn't have an emotional reaction to terrorism, but part of my emotional reaction was that I didn't want to hand the terrorists a small victory by letting them influence those decisions.
Having read the stark details of what happened in Mumbai, the truth is that it's hard to see how terroristic acts themselves can be overdramatized. But the threat of future attacks can be, and the psychological and economic fallout from that fear can reverberate for a long time. Terrorism is seldom effective in achieving its stated political goals, but it does succeed in economically damaging the places where it occurs, affecting far greater numbers of people than were directly affected in the attacks.
Paradoxically, this requires the complicity of ordinary travelers. As happened to New York after 9/11, Bali after the nightclub bombings and Egypt after the Luxor massacre, the impact of violence is compounded by economic loss to survivors who are punished by travelers who cancel travel plans or will not consider booking those destinations.
One can't really be too harsh in blaming travelers for avoiding places that were recently attacked. Even with full awareness of the unlikelihood of being a direct victim of a terrorist attack, it's quite rational to think, "I can choose among thousands of destinations to visit. Why would I pick a place that was recently the site of a tragedy?"
As reported on our website over the past week and in our pages today, not only are travelers canceling trips, but some suppliers are canceling departures and calls to the port of Mumbai. That may be driven less by worry about another attack than by the fears of their clients.
As sellers of travel, what can one do to deny terrorists the benefits of the economic aftershocks they were seeking? Not much, I'm afraid. There are only a handful of travelers who will consciously visit Mumbai to show support for its citizens. In the past, Portland, Ore., travel agent Sho Dozono organized morale-boosting trips to New York after 9/11; to Phuket, Thailand, after the 2004 tsunami; and to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But these were noteworthy due in part to their exceptional nature.
I suspect that at this point, it would be difficult simply to persuade travelers not to cancel trips to India. Attempting to convince them to support India by visiting now might leave them scratching their heads, questioning their travel counselor's judgment.
Ironically, the reality is that anyone who does decide to visit Mumbai in the coming months will likely have an experience far richer and more meaningful than if they had visited a month ago. When, whether consciously or inadvertently, I have found myself in places beset by drama, the experience has been deeply moving in unexpected ways.
I joined Dozono on his trip to Phuket after the tsunami, and in 1984 I was stranded in Kashmir, India, for six weeks after its borders were sealed following the storming of the Golden Temple in the neighboring state of Punjab. In both instances, the barriers that normally separate traveler from host were temporarily lowered. There is a touchpoint in common between visitor and resident, and human connections come to the fore.
Emotion tends to overwhelm rationality when it comes to terrorism. What's "right" for any given traveler depends a lot on that person's psychology.
Good travel agents are intuitive psychologists. Pushing people who don't want to visit India to consider booking a trip there does not seem like a good idea. But gently pushing back at certain clients who are reflexively talking about canceling a trip there might, in fact, be doing them a favor.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].