Should I stay or should I go? Attracting tourists in the wake of a terror attack

Published: 
July 2017

New research has revealed some surprising findings about which tourists are least likely to be deterred by the threat of terrorism - and how best to appeal to them.

It appears that the need for ‘luxuries’ are replaced with needs relating to safety and security, such as staying in established hotel chains and travelling with others

From Sydney and Paris to Brussels, Berlin and Manchester - the number of terrorist incidents is now the highest on record and it seems that no city is immune from attack.

Even countries which are otherwise safe and politically stable can be deemed ‘high risk’ by government travel warnings, with a devastating impact on their tourist trade. In Paris, for example, visitor numbers dropped by 30% after the November 2015 attacks and although they have now recovered, the high spending Chinese and Japanese visitors are still staying away.

However not all tourists are deterred. Dr Gabby Walters, an expert on tourism risk management at UQ Business School, says: “Almost half of international travelers will still travel regardless of any apparent risk, and these crisis-resilient tourists represent a viable market for destinations trying to recover from terrorism.”

To find out more, she and her colleagues, choice modelling expert Ann Wallin and consumer psychologist Dr Nicole Hartley, questioned over 400 potential visitors to Australia to find out how different levels of risk would affect their travel plans and what type of people would still go ahead with the trip.

Respondents were all US residents, split equally between male and female, with the majority educated to degree level or above. A fifth had already visited Australia.

The results showed that almost 2% would choose not to travel at ‘low risk’ - when an attack may or may not have occurred in the past but a future attack was unlikely. In a ‘high-risk’ situation, where an attack has not occurred but is likely, almost 12% would cancel, rising to 22% in ‘extreme risk’, where an attack has occurred and another is likely.

There was also a difference in the tourists’ preferences. As the risk rises, group tours become more attractive, suggesting that people may feel safer in numbers, or they are transferring the risk to a tour operator.

Price becomes less important, as other factors take priority. “This indicates that those who are less likely to be deterred by the threat of terrorism are also less likely to be lured by discounts,” says Ms Wallin. “Perhaps tourists perceive higher prices as signaling both quality and trust, mitigating the perceived risk.”

Tourists also prefer established hotel chains to independent non-branded hotels in high risk situations. “This is somewhat surprising, considering that some of the major hotels chains have been the target of previous incidents,” adds Dr Hartley. “Big hotels can be soft targets, not only due to the ease of access, but also because they are symbols of western affluence and attract the kind of people terrorists target - tourists, business travelers and diplomats.” Unsurprisingly, people are also more concerned about having flexible cancellation policies when the risk is high.

The research found that ‘sensation seekers’ and more adventurous types are more likely to go ahead with travel plans in higher risk situations, as are older travelers. This confirms previous research which suggested that seniors worry less due to their extensive life experience and are less likely to be deterred by bad experiences than Millennials.

Those who carry out detailed research into their travel plans are also more likely to go, perhaps because having so much knowledge provides some degree of peace of mind. Meanwhile high earners are less likely to travel, possibly because they are less concerned about losing money by cancelling or changing plans.

The researchers suggest that in higher risk situations, there are ‘winners and losers’. Big hotel chains and group tour companies stand to win or retain tourists, while boutique hotels and businesses such as car hire companies which support independent travel stand to lose out.

The researchers advise the latter types to increase marketing activity at times of higher risk, but focus on cross-promotions with established operators or offer group travel options. However they warn them not to offer discounts or incentives such as flight and hotel upgrades.

“It appears that the need for ‘luxuries’ are replaced with needs relating to safety and security, such as staying in established hotel chains and travelling with others,” says Dr Walters. “Often destinations offer discounts following a crisis, however we would advise against that given that tourists appear to be thinking beyond money-saving solutions in these situations.”

Finally the research team urge governments to consider the impact of travel warnings and provide help for smaller businesses affected. “While the role of governments is to advise on national security, they should remain sensitive to the impact of travel warnings on the tourism industry.

“In an attempt to offset the damage created by high-risk alerts, governments could also seek to help smaller, independent providers during this time, for example by promotional campaigns that emphasise safety and security in those towns and cities less likely to be the target of an attack.”