Fallout from terrorists’ attacks ripples through travel industry

A French police officer slowed and monitored traffic at the country’s border with Belgium last week.
A French police officer slowed and monitored traffic at the country’s border with Belgium last week. Photo Credit: Michel Spingler/AP

The ripple effects from the Paris terror attacks continued to spread last week as Brussels remained in lockdown and the U.S. State Department issued a global travel alert, further adding to the industry’s challenges from what has become an ever-widening and more elusive global terror threat.

“Having headlines like the ones we have is never comfortable for the travel industry anywhere in the world,” said Tom Jenkins, president of the European Tour Operators Association. “Safety is not [just] important; it’s a prerequisite for tourism’s existence. What we have witnessed in Paris and what is now happening in Brussels is obviously both distressing and disruptive.”

Yet despite the terror attacks in Paris, the high security presence in Brussels and the State Department alert, Jenkins and other representatives of the industry remained resolute last week in their defiance of media-driven fearmongering and in continuing to encourage travelers to proceed with their travel plans.

“Some of us are going to travel regardless of what the State Department might be saying,” Steve Loucks, chief communications officer for Travel Leaders Group, wrote in an email from London last week. “We arm our agents with talking points that have at their heart the facts as we know them. We advise our agents to use them and avoid speculation and feeding into the negative so that clients may make informed decisions.”

A key potential setback for the industry was the U.S. State Department’s global travel alert last Monday, warning Americans of potential travel risks, especially during the holidays, amid growing terrorist threats around the world.

Such alerts are not uncommon in times of terrorist threats. In this case, the State Department noted that in the past year, there have been attacks in France, Nigeria, Denmark, Lebanon, Turkey and, most recently, Mali, where gunmen killed 22 people at a Radisson Blu hotel one week after the Paris attacks.

The alert cautioned that current information suggests ISIS, al-Qaida, Boko Haram militants and other terrorist groups have continued to plan attacks, increasing the likelihood that attacks on civilian targets will continue.

“U.S. citizens should exercise vigilance when in public places or using transportation,” the alert said. “Be aware of immediate surroundings and avoid large crowds or crowded places. Exercise particular caution during the holiday season and at holiday festivals or events.”

Global travel alerts such as this latest one, which will remain in effect until Feb. 24, have been issued somewhat regularly over the last several years. The most recent worldwide travel alert was issued in December 2014 and prior to that in August 2013, September 2011 and May 2011.

Daniel Durazo, director of communications for Allianz Travel Insurance, said, “The State Department routinely issues travel alerts for international travel. A travel alert alone is not a good reason for a prudent traveler to cancel their trip.”

Allianz does not cover insured travelers for cancellations due to a State Department-issued global travel alert such as the one currently in place, although travel insurance policies that have a “cancel for any reason” clause would. 

Allianz does cover customers for trip cancellation if there is a terrorist event at their destination within 30 days of their arrival, which according to Durazo, has proved valuable in providing travelers the option to cancel or reschedule Paris trips.

Since the attacks in France, travel insurance provider InsureMyTrip said last week it had seen a 20% jump in calls from travelers seeking insurance protection.

In addition to the U.S. State Department’s global travel alert, Belgium’s prime minister last week said Brussels would remain at its highest alert level for at least another week.

Increased border security

In both the U.S. and Europe, the recent events in Paris have spurred discussion about how and whether EU countries should be beefing up their border security. In Europe, there have been talks of, and several moves toward, reintroducing border controls in Europe’s 26-nation, open-borders Schengen zone, an initiative that could completely change how travelers move through the Continent.

According to Ed Daly, global watch director at risk-assessment company iJet International, several countries in Europe have already implemented temporary border controls in the wake of the Paris attacks, and many countries, especially in Eastern Europe, have already put checkpoints in place due to the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis.

“Open societies such as Europe are genuinely struggling with finding a balance between enough security and too much security and the political and social implications this entails,” Daly said. “The core EU principle of open borders is being tested in a way that few imagined would be necessary.”

Jim Hutton, chief security officer at On Call International, a travel emergency assistance provider, said that while some temporary border controls could be implemented for a period of time in Europe, the logistics of setting up something more permanent or sophisticated would require a large amount of bureaucratic cooperation and infrastructure.

“It will take significant and coordinated effort and international will for a broader reinstatement [of border controls] across Europe, given the level of cultural investment in the current system,” Hutton said. “The effort would require upgraded intelligence systems, policy rationalization, integrated surveillance systems, increased staffing, expansion of consular services. And rapid-entry adjudication processes will need to be reinstated and/or improved.”

That said, if Europe does decide to further clamp down on border controls, Hutton warned, travelers could ultimately see delays in the visa issuance process, delays at ports of entry and trips requiring multiple visas for travel of short duration and distance, among other potential drawbacks.

“It could be a major deterrent [to travel],” he said. “One could envision that opportunistic or spur-of-the-moment leisure trips would become less attractive.”

‘We can’t stop living our lives’

Despite what appears to be a rapid buildup of precautions and concerns in the wake of the Paris attacks, a travel industry that has become hardened in the aftermath of the world-altering 9/11 attacks remained confident last week that with the right perspective, life and business can and will move forward.

“We’ve been at this point before,” said Rodney George, managing partner at St. Louis-based Luxe Travel Consultants. “We had a warning like this after 9/11 and several since then. My feeling is we can’t stop living our lives just because there might be a threat out there.”

George said that when clients tell him they are nervous about traveling in light of the State Department alert and the terror attacks in Paris, he tells them that they have every right to be nervous given the current circumstances.

“It really depends on the client,” George said. “Some just aren’t worried about it, and others are afraid to leave the house. I say, ‘OK, here’s the deal: The State Department has issued a global alert. You need to be aware of that, but it’s ultimately your decision.’ And then a lot of people ask what I would do.”

His inevitable response: “I would go.”

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