Insight: How terrorism has changed our holiday plans

Esme Allen always considered herself an intrepid traveller. She had taken her young children on several African holidays and journeyed to Iraq on a photographic assignment.

Esme Allen with husband Stuart, and their children, Joe and Thea
Esme Allen with husband Stuart, and their children, Joe and Thea

But reports of an attempted military coup in Turkey hours before the family were due to fly to a resort near Dalaman for their summer holiday stopped her in her tracks.

British Airways started cancelling flights. EasyJet, with whom the family were travelling, was still flying, but Allen said travel advice on the Foreign Office website had not been clear.

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Allen phoned the hotel. “Everything’s fine – it’s lovely here,” was the encouraging response. But then she began to think that while it was reassuring that the unrest was happening in Istanbul, 500 miles to the north, there was every chance they would be caught up in knock-on travel disruption.

She said: “I did not feel we would be in any danger, and the coup attempt was not happening all over the country. It was more to do with whether airports would be closed.”

Allen, 43, a communications officer with Christian Aid in Edinburgh, decided it just wouldn’t make for a relaxing holiday for herself, husband Stuart, 43, and their children Joe, 12 and Thea, nine, however remote the possibility that they would be affected.

“It’s not conducive to a family break,” she said. “Holidays are supposed to be relaxing and you do not want to be checking your phone every ten minutes for news updates.”

Allen’s dilemma will have been shared by thousands of Scottish families, who will also have pondered the fate of their annual breaks in the sun following a series of violent incidents across Europe, from attacks on trains to airport bombings and a lorry being used to mow down crowds.

A longing for that much-anticipated trip, and the expectations of children just liberated from their classrooms – plus, of course, the cost of the holiday – will have been weighed up against the perceived threat, the heightened security making air travel even more arduous, and a sense of dread that the worst might happen.

Figures show that the coup unrest in Turkey, which followed several terrorist attacks, has significantly affected demand.

Thomas Cook, one of the UK’s largest tour operators, reported on Thursday that it had reduced the number of holidays there by 40 per cent compared with last year. However, the firm also said prices had been cut by a similar proportion – and that had led to some taking advantage of a bargain.

I know of one single mother near Glasgow who has just taken her children to Turkey for that very reason. The woman took the situation into account, but the family was desperate for a holiday and they got a very good deal at a five-star resort. According to Thomas Cook, she’s by no means alone.

Esme Allen said her neighbours, who went ahead with flying to Dalaman from Newcastle the day after the coup attempt, reported just a few empty seats on the plane. EasyJet, which also flies to Bodrum from Edinburgh, said: “We are currently seeing a low number of passengers asking to cancel their flights.”

In some respects, it’s like the BSE crisis of 20 years ago. The scare over “mad cow disease” sent beef sales tumbling by a third, but discounting helped push demand back to its previous level within two years.

The other major factor driving families’ reaction to the violence is their determination to get away.

On Wednesday, a Police Scotland survey of 10,000 people showed the terrorist threat was the country’s top concern, ahead of violent crime. But when it comes to foreign holidays, people appear to be largely casting their fears aside.

“Scottish travellers are quite resilient – they don’t want to give up their holiday,” said Alan Glen, president of the Scottish Passenger Agents Association (SPAA), which represents travel agents.

Glen said many Scots had given the terrorist incidents a collective shrug, mindful that the very airport from which many of them fly out on their holidays – Glasgow – was itself a target in 2007.

He said: “A lot of the terrorist attacks seem to have been lone wolf incidents,“ referring to outrages such as the suicide bombing and train axe attack in Germany, and the Nice truck massacre. “Scots are quite fatalistic. It could happen anywhere, including here.”

For Allen’s family, that proved all too true. Opting to head for the Norfolk Broads after postponing their Turkish trip until October, they ended up staying a few miles from the RAF Marham air base, just as a serviceman escaped an attempted abduction. “It was somewhat ironic,” Allen reflected. “It just shows that terrorist attacks could happen anywhere, even in Edinburgh.”

Last week’s murder of a priest near Rouen similarly reminded me of my own family’s trip to that part of France in April.

We had flown to Paris but headed immediately north, fearing for security in the French capital – even five months after the terrorist outrage which killed 130 people there – and saw Normandy as much less likely to be a target. But our drive was to take us less than a mile from the church which was attacked.

Elsewhere, holidaymakers have remained blissfully unaware of incidents – with their relatives back in Scotland more worried than they are.

One couple who flew to the Turkish resort of Antalya from Glasgow last month only heard about the coup attempt because someone back home phoned to ask if they were okay.

Scotland’s major airports said there had been no discernible impact from the latest attacks in flying habits. In fact, they are continuing to handle record numbers of passengers.

Edinburgh – the busiest – set a new Scottish record last month when it saw nearly 1.2 million passengers pass through, while Glasgow had its busiest June with almost 950,000.

Glasgow Airport pointed out that there had been a far greater effect last year after the beach shootings in the Tunisian resort of Sousse, in which 38 people were killed. Thirty of them were Britons – the greatest number to be killed in a terrorist outrage since the London suicide bombings in 2005.

Airlines cancelled flights from the UK, and the Foreign Office now advises against all but essential travel to the country.

A Glasgow Airport spokesman said: “We are not getting any reports back of passenger numbers being impacted this summer. It feels like business as usual. There has not been the same reaction as last year.”

Thousands of Scots previously flew to Tunisia, and more to resorts in countries such as Egypt and Morocco, which airlines have also shunned.

The SPAA’s Alan Glen said holidaymakers had simply moved elsewhere. He said: “The airport figures are growing steadily and don’t suggest people have stopped flying. There have not been more ‘staycations’ either.” However, he said there had been a marked shift west, bringing problems of its own: “Egypt and Tunisia have become no-go areas following Foreign Office advice. In Turkey, people are staying away from directly affected areas.

“France and Germany is quite different. They are not particularly big holiday destinations for Scots, with France more popular in the south of England.”

The new holiday crisis has been created by many Scots switching from the eastern and southern Mediterranean to the west – particularly Spain and its islands, and Portugal and Italy.

The main tour operators, who also include Jet2holidays and Thomson, have increased flights there from Scotland this summer – but the extra demand for accommodation has sent prices soaring. Travel agents said holidays were now around £700-800 per person per week – up to £150 more than last year.

The situation has been made worse by the collapse of the Spanish-based operator Lowcostholidays two weeks ago.

Added to that, holiday costs in the Canary Isles are being pushed up by an increase in Russian tourism, which has reportedly triggered an opportunistic increase in prices.

The new Spanish boom has come despite the Foreign Office still listing Spain among countries where there is a “high threat from terrorism”.

Thomas Cook, which has been hit so badly in Turkey, reported bookings to the Canaries up 18 per cent this summer and the Balearics by 11 per cent.

It also said demand for holidays in America had risen by 30 per cent – demonstrating that increasing Spanish costs are making long-haul travel look more attractive.

Chief executive Peter Fankhauser said: “We’ve taken action to further reduce our capacity to Turkey and increased sales of holidays to other areas, including the western Mediterranean and long-haul destinations such as the USA. Growth to smaller destinations such as Bulgaria and Cuba is also strong.”

Travel agents said such was the demand for Spain, those failing to find a holiday this summer were booking for 2017 already.

Joanne Dooey, owner of Love to Travel in Coatbridge, said: “Late deals have become really scarce. It can now be cheaper to go for a week in Dubai than Spain in high season.”

The turmoil caused by the latest spate of violence has come just as airlines and travel firms are also grappling with the impact of Brexit, the weaker pound and other turbulence.

That means caution should be applied to any claims that the violence has been a bigger factor than anything else, especially for firms already struggling to compete against their rivals. Flybe said “the current outlook is very uncertain”, but it attributed the business climate as much to the economic impact of the EU exit as to anything else. Chief executive Saad Hammad said: “It is also too early to assess the potential demand impact of recent terrorist attacks.”

Air France-KLM, battling against a fierce challenge from low-cost airlines, said last week it had “special concern” about France as a destination.

However, the long view shows that travel has been extremely resilient following short-term shocks. New York bounced back after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the city has never been so popular north of the border, with three airlines now flying daily from Edinburgh alone. London similarly rebounded from the 7/7 attacks four years later.

Glen said: “New York completely recovered, as did London, and I’m sure Paris will. It’s just a knee-jerk reaction.”

One flight search website said that while there had been sudden dips in demand after the terrorist incidents, they had been shortlived.

Lisa Imlach, of Edinburgh-based Skyscanner, said: “Looking at searches for departures over the summer months, the events haven’t impacted this. If anything, there has been a very small increase year on year.

“What we tend to see is if there is a dip due to such tragic incidents, searches resume to normal levels very quickly.

“In the week immediately after the Turkish coup, we saw a very small decrease week on week. However, looking at the past week, interest has levelled out and has reached the same level as before it occurred.”

Research by courier firm Send My Bag last month also showed that four in five Scots would not let terrorist attacks change their plans. As one of those questioned aptly pointed out: “Terrorists do not put me off travelling. You have much higher chances of dying on the way to the airport than on holiday.”

Meanwhile, on the ground, security in France is being stepped up in an effort to reassure tourists, with armed police and soldiers being deployed to holiday sites such as beaches.

In Corsica, a hardline branch of the French island’s separatist movement, FLNC, warned Islamic extremists it would respond “without hesitation” to any attacks.

However, travel experts said other extreme measures, such as high-security gated holiday compounds were not the answer. They have been developed in the Caribbean to combat local crime, rather than terrorism, making such destinations unlikely to be attractive to the ultra safety conscious.

In Rome last week, a Highland couple visiting with their teenage children reported heightened security, but the Italian capital was as busy as ever.

They said: “Every possible target in Rome – the Belgian embassy, political party headquarters – had armed military, usually with an armoured vehicle outside. It was a very visible presence but there didn’t appear to be any diminution in the volume of people at the main tourist hot spots like the Colosseum and Trevi Fountain.”