Mediterranean tourism: Plane’s disappearance adds another worry

Story highlights

Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia had become popular tourism destinations for Europeans

Resorts along the Mediterranean have suffered due to terror fears, refugee crisis

London CNN  — 

The Mediterranean has long evoked images of azure waters, warm weather and relaxation at reasonable prices. But that idyllic picture is beginning to darken, with plane crashes, terror attacks on the beach and refugee deaths at sea now blighting the region.

The EgyptAir flight that vanished early Thursday is just the latest of troubles to hit the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, many reliant on tourism as the backbone of their economies.

Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia have become popular tourism destinations for European travelers looking for something cheap and exotic.

Resorts such as Sousse, Tunisia; Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt; and Turkey’s Bodrum Peninsula were transformed into sun-and-sand hubs, but they have all suffered as the Syria conflict appears to be spreading beyond its borders.

“The impact on those resorts has been disastrous in my view,” Sean Tipton, spokesman for the Association of British Travel Agents, told CNN.

In June, 38 tourists were gunned down on the beach in Sousse, 30 of them British.

The British Foreign Office has advised its citizens not to travel to Sousse, meaning accredited tour operators will not sell tickets and packages to tourists. And in Britain, where about 50% of tourists book vacations in packages, the government advice has had an enormous impact.

“That warning means that no packages to Sousse are being sold in Britain, so numbers from the UK to Sousse went from hundreds of thousands to zero over a very short time,” Tipton said.

“Sousse was also very popular with French tourists, and they are easily turned off when these events happen because they can just go to a beach in the south of their own country.”

01:03 - Source: CNN
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More: Families of EgyptAir passengers wait in anguish

Thursday’s disappearance of EgyptAir Flight 804 is the second aviation disaster for Egypt in recent months. A bomb tore through a Russian airliner in October just after it left the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, killing all 224 people on board in an attack claimed by ISIS.

EgyptAir missing flight timeline

Tourism accounts for about 11% of Egypt’s gross domestic product and supports about 11% of all jobs in the country, either directly or indirectly, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Can Egyptian tourism survive another airline disaster?

Shares in British-based travel giant Thomas Cook dropped to its lowest price in three years Thursday after it reported modest earnings, with bookings for the summer down 5% as interest in Turkey wanes.

Thomas Cook CEO Peter Fankhauser said that “demand for Turkey – our second largest market last year – remains significantly below last year’s levels.”

Thomas Cook has also lost significant bookings to Egypt, with Sharm el-Sheikh being its main destination for British tourists. It saw a decrease in sales to Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia worth £132 million ($192 million). It is making up for the shortfall by refocusing on Spain, the United States, Cuba and Mexico.

The October attack in Egypt prompted the British government to ban its airliners from flying in and out of the resort as the local airport came under intense scrutiny, with the question of how an explosive made its way on board still unanswered.

Political unrest still haunts the eastern Mediterranean following the Arab Spring, which has left pockets of power vacuums and has allowed ISIS to find a Libyan stronghold in the coastal town of Sirte, where hotels sit empty.

The Mediterranean has struggled to deal with the flow of refugees from the Middle East and Africa, who cram on small boats from Libya and Turkey to reach EU countries, with thousands tragically drowning in the very sea that has been the setting for so many holidays.

Tourists on Greek islands such as Kos and Lesbos have found themselves face to face with Syrian refugees, and while many have lent a hand in helping during the crisis, the number of people visiting the islands has dropped.

This is bad news for Greece, still reeling from a years-long economic crisis with some economists forecasting a need for a fourth injection of funds from the EU and international creditors to keep the economy afloat.

But not all the Mediterranean is at a loss. Tourists who had plans to visit the east are shifting to parts of the western Mediterranean, such as Spain and southern France, where resorts are fully booked.

“We’re seeing operators try to encourage tourists to go to other parts of the region, like Cape Verde and the Canary Islands, as an alternative to places that are seen as unsafe or that are expected to be extremely crowded,” Tipton said.