March 22, 2015
Magna Carta, Tunis and why tourists are still a soft but effective target
The Independent, Friday 20th March 2015
Click here to read the article as it appeared in The Independent
Last Wednesday morning I had the good fortune to visit Salisbury Cathedral, which is making much of the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta. Over the centuries, the cathedral has cared well for its copy of King John’s “Great Charter” of rights under the law, and it is arguably the best version of the four originals that still exist. To mark the anniversary, the twin virtues of human rights and tourism are elegantly combined in an exhibition that draws you through the Cloister to the Chapter House – the loftily spiritual home for this powerful document.
The exhibition tells of a struggle for liberty that began at Runnymede (now uncomfortably close to Heathrow) and still underpins the concept of human rights in the 21st century. This accord between the King and his barons also enshrines the principle of free movement: “In future it shall be lawful for any man to leave and return to our kingdom unharmed and without fear.”
Looking at visitors’ comments in Salisbury, I was taken by one response which read: “The world has never been safer. Have no fear.” British travellers tend to take our own human rights for granted, and these days a “great charter” is a fully laden wide-bodied jet going to Alicante.
But only one hour later, and 1,500 miles to the south, the wanton slaughter of innocents had begun in Tunis, at the 200-year-old palace resting on ancient foundations. A museum became the venue for a massacre by evil-doers seeking to bludgeon the 21st-century world back to the Middle Ages.
The 22 deaths at the Bardo Museum represent only a tiny proportion of the dreadful carnage prevailing in much of North Africa and the Middle East. But for grieving families, each is an unimaginable loss. And for the people of Tunisia, who depend on tourism, life is going to get a whole lot harder. Holiday-makers are the softest of targets, but attacking them is the fast track to destabilising any nation dependent on tourism.
The Shining Path led the way in Peru in the 1980s; the very threat that Machu Picchu visitors were a legitimate target for the Maoist guerrillas wrecked the tourist industry there. Then, in the 1990s, terrorists in Egypt adopted the strategy – most bloodily in 1997 when 62 people were killed at Luxor. Four years ago, the Argana Café in the Marrakech tourist hub of Djemaa el-Fna was bombed with the loss of 19 lives. Now it is the turn of Tunisia.
I would happily return to any or all of those places in a heartbeat; a rational assessment of risk indicates overwhelming odds in favour of a safe, rewarding experience. But I can understand anxieties about travel to North Africa.
So, where do we go from here? Some travel organisations have a blunt, immediate response: anywhere but Tunisia and its neighbours. Cruise lines can easily bypass ports that they perceive as risky, and turn off the tap of wealth that trickles in with a big ship. Package holiday companies have more complicated business models, with commitments to hotels and fleets of aircraft to deploy. But, as Thomson showed when it abruptly cancelled its entire programme to Kenya last year, the perception of danger can wipe out thousands of holidays and the benefits they bring to host communities.
If tourism in North Africa was not already looking bleak, Egypt has now decided to toughen up its visa regime for anyone with the temerity to venture beyond the mass-market Sinai peninsula.
The Arab Spring first blossomed in Tunisia in 2011, but was contaminated as it spread across North Africa. Last week, the boss of Kuoni, Derek Jones, summed up the scale of the slump in Egypt. “Cairo and Luxor were a big percentage of our business five years ago,” he told the TTG Industry Leaders Forum. And how much do they constitute now? “Zero.”
At present, Egyptian immigration bureaucracy is trivial for most visitors. It’s a two-class system. If you are going no further than Sharm el-Sheikh, Dahab or Taba on the Red Sea, you are welcomed in, free of charge so long as your passport has at least six months to run. Everyone else can buy a “visa” – really just a revenue-raising stamp for your passport – which you can obtain without fuss.
From 15 May, it becomes a three-class system. The sunseekers of Sharm continue to get an exemption for stays up to a fortnight – which covers the vast majority of holidaymakers there. Groups of tourists booked through Egyptian travel agents can also whizz through immigration. The rest of us – typically independent travellers and business people – must apply in advance to the local Egyptian Consulate for permission, with payment only in Postal Orders or cash (and “no Scottish notes” the London Consulate helpfully points out).
Anything that entangles a journey in red tape and constricts the freedom to travel is a retreat from an open, generous world. And to stifle visitor numbers is to play into the hands of those who want to deny the joy of 21st-century travel.
To try to get some perspective in the aftermath of this latest, wretched atrocity, consider the memorial to the 191 victims of the Madrid train bombings, carried out 11 years ago this month. You can find this shrine to lost loves on the concourse at the Atocha railway station in the Spanish capital.
“No fear, no revenge, just peace,” insists an inscription. “Let happiness come to our hearts again.”
Hopeless optimism? Perhaps, but hope is at the heart of every journey.