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2 Dec, 2002

Mombasa Bombings Mean “Soft & Vulnerable” Tourism Now a Target

LAST week’s bombings in the Kenyan beach resort of Mombassa pose a grave danger to the future of the global tourism industry, and more specifically to that of Thailand, too.

While international intelligence and security officials are admitting that the ‘soft and vulnerable’ tourism industry has now become a target worldwide, Thai industry executives are noting that Israel is the largest and fastest growing source of arrivals from the Middle East to Thailand itself.

Recalling the December 28, 1972 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok and another abortive attempt on March 11, 1994, a senior tourism executive said he was “mighty worried” about the possibility of another attack, this time targeting tourists. “I think we’ve got a serious problem on our hands,” he said, declining to be identified.

In recent years, Israeli visitors have been flocking in droves to Bangkok, Singapore and Manila, where they don’t require visas. In 2001, Israeli visitors to Thailand totalled 91,253, up 24 pc over 2000, the third fastest growth rate of all markets, after Vietnam and Cambodia.

This growth continued in Jan – June 2002, when Israeli visitors to Thailand totalled 44,846, an increase of 12.83 pc over the same period of Jan-June 2001. Israelis now comprise about 40 pc of total visitor arrivals from the Middle East.

Said the executive, “An attack on Israelis could have the same effect that the murders of Saudi diplomats and businessmen in Bangkok in 1989 and 1990, and the 1989 jewellery theft case, had on Saudi visitor arrivals.”

Thailand has never recovered from those incidents, having lost billions of baht in lost income from tourism and worker remittances. After years of maintaining a token presence, Saudi Arabian Airlines recently pulled all its services out of Bangkok.

Once one of the fastest growing markets, visitor arrivals from Saudi Arabia to Thailand totalled a paltry 13,593 in 2001, with no growth over 2000.

The other significant problem now raising concern is about the Thai International flights to Tel Aviv. THAI flies to Israel six times a week on a code-share with El Al using El Al equipment. This means that although the passengers are holding THAI tickets, they are flying on an Israeli aircraft.

Thai International officials last week admitted that they were aware of the new threat this posed but were unsure about what to do about it. They said El Al’s security is anyway known to be the highest in the business, but agreed that this made no difference under the circumstances.

“I don’t think we can bring out the military to police the perimeter of Don Muang each time an El Al plane takes off or lands,” said one THAI executive.

At the global level, the International Air Transport Association has said that more than two billion dollars will be spent on security arrangements for airlines and airports worldwide. In addition to all the equipment installed on the ground and other less important security arrangements like the removal of metal knives on the food trays, approval has been given for sky marshals to be stationed on board aircraft in the United States.

Industry sources said this latest attack by a shoulder-fired missile makes that entire expenditure essentially useless. Said one aviation source, “So what is the airline industry going to do next, have every airport in the world patrolled by the military and the police?”

A debate has erupted within the travel and tourism industry about who should pay for all the security arrangements. So far, it has been the airports and airlines but both are now saying that this is a government problem and governments should pay.

Whoever pays up front, eventually of course it will be the traveller who pays.

An article in last Saturday’s New York Times quoted an American official as saying that the rise in such targets “is something we’ve been concerned about for some time.”

The article added, “Such targets are tough to predict — and even tougher to protect.”

“We expect to see more of these kinds of attacks around the world,” the official was quoted as saying, “and obviously it makes our job more difficult. We talk about Al Qaeda’s global reach, and it is indeed global.”

The Mombassa attack will also re-open the debate over the issuance of travel advisories and almost certainly lead to more being issued regularly in future, creating further complications for the governments of developing countries.

The Australian government says that it warned several weeks ago about an attack in Mombassa, but it is interesting to note that even the highly security-conscious Israelis either seem to have ignored this or complacently assumed that their tight security arrangements would be enough.

Even the ASEAN heads of state felt the advisories to be important enough to warrant space in their joint communique following the early November ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh. Officials have accused Western governments of double standards in applying travel advisories, issuing them when terrorist attacks hit developing countries, but not when they hit developed nations.

“We call on the international community to avoid indiscriminately advising their citizens to refrain from visiting or otherwise dealing with our countries, in the absence of established evidence to substantiate rumours of possible terrorist attacks,” the leaders said in their statement.

The wider concern now looming is over the impact of a war in Iraq. Many have warned that that will only worsen the situation, in which case the travel and tourism industry and regional economies with a high percentage of foreign exchange earnings from visitors can expect some grim days ahead.

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