NICE // When 130 people are killed on one evening in central Paris and 86 more die in Nice, a jewel robbery may seem a shallow reason for the French tourism industry to feel further pangs of concern.
But while the threat of terrorism is the obvious main cause of a worrying decline in France’s traditionally powerful appeal to the rest of the world, it would be foolish to rule out fears about personal safety as a contributing factor.
However the different causes are assessed, the impact has been severe. Tourism numbers rose from 83 million to 84.7 million between 2012 and 2014, confirming France as the world’s most visited country.
Before the Paris attacks, the World Travel and Tourism Council listed economic benefits as a €77.1 billion (Dh311.5bn) boost for GDP and 1.1 million direct jobs, both figures predicted to rise significantly in coming years. But the French government acknowledges that growth has now halted, especially in the capital, and tourism analysis says the target of reaching 100 million visits by 2020 looks extravagant.
Having suffered the effects of terrorist attacks, the sector regards the negative publicity following a high-profile robbery as decidedly unwelcome.
The US television reality show personality Kim Kardashian was unlucky in that a ruthless gang of criminals became aware of her whereabouts in a swish residence behind the Paris’s Madeleine church in the eighth arrondissement, while she attended Paris Fashion Week events.
But while not many people would dream of carrying diamond-studded rings and other gems worth millions of dollars for a short trip to to Paris, some affluent visitors – including many from the UAE and other Arabian Gulf countries – have always thought it entirely natural to wear what they wish and go where they want without being targeted by gangsters.
As a member of the Saudi royal family and editor-in-chief of Vogue Arabia, Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz is well placed to raise difficult questions. “There’s no question in my mind that this will play heavily on the mind of shoppers and travellers from the Gulf when it comes to visiting in Paris,” she told The New York Times.
“Lots wear their jewellery very openly … they shop and have always felt very safe doing so. But when something like this can happen, and to someone with such a good security detail, well – it’s a big surprise. And it’s very frightening.”
Emiratis and Saudis, often high-spending and favouring long stays, represent the Middle East’s main market for outbound travel, according to the most recent analysis from the Berlin-based ITB (International Tourism Market).
Predictions of a possible downturn in the flow of Gulf visitors to France preceded the November 13 attacks, although Paris was already considered at some risk after the murders committed by the French-Algerian Kouachi brothers at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine, and separate killings by an accomplice in January last year.
The sheer scale of the massacres that followed dealt a much more severe blow to the sector. In the immediate aftermath of the killings of July 14 on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – with Muslims among the victims as in Paris eight months earlier – large numbers of reservations were cancelled.
Estimates cited by the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche warned of a 25 per cent cut in hotel revenues in the resort, France’s most visited city after the capital. And in Paris, some five-star hotels sliced between 25 and 40 per cent off room rates as people stayed away.
The French government said in August that visits by all foreigners had dropped by 7 per cent in the period from January, due in large part to terrorist attacks. The Parisian region was worst hit and the “perception of risk” had deterred better-off clients, especially from Asian countries, according to Jean-Marc Ayrault, minister of foreign affairs and tourism. By August, the number of nights spent in France by foreign visitors had fallen by 10 per cent.
Other reasons advanced for the decline include serious flooding that affected several areas and France’s reputation for disruptive strikes, sometimes accompanied by violence on the streets. A law passed in 2010 banning face-covering veils has also been a factor deterring Muslim visitors and this was aggravated by unseemly scenes from French beaches of women surrounded by police officers because they wore burqinis in contradiction of local mayoral orders, even though most bans were later overturned by the courts.
The need of France and other holiday destinations to retain their appeal to visitors from the Middle East was highlighted in a detailed report compiled by Fenja Weberskirch, marketing consultant for the International Tourism Consulting Group (IPK), based on data from last year’s edition of the ITB’s World Travel Monitor Forum in the Italian city of Pisa.
She stated: “The Middle East outbound travel market was actually the world’s fastest-growing market [in 2015] with a 9 per cent increase in outbound trips over the first eight months of this year, according to preliminary results.”
Besides Saudi Arabia, the UAE was listed as the region’s most active outbound market. “There is a very high proportion of high-earners going on international trips and a high [about 50 per cent] share of younger international travellers under the age of 34.”
About one-third of such trips were made with children and a similar proportion of outbound travel from the region was by expats with Gulf residential and work permits, mostly to visit friends and relatives.
In 2014, Ms Weberskirch reported, about two-thirds of outbound trips by Emiratis were for a range of holidays from tours and city visits to private purposes such as honeymoons and health-focused travel.
Ramzi Maaytah, a partner with IPK International Middle East, told the Pisa conference last year there was an interesting trend for well-off Arabs going abroad for treatment to choose destinations offering Islamic hospitality, such as Malaysia and Indonesia. “In general, Arab tourists tend to make conservative choices when selecting their destination,” he said. “They prefer safe choices and want to know what they will get.”
According to IPK and ITB, it remains to be seen how the tourism industry is bearing up in the face of terrorism. Updated analysis to be presented next month at the 2016 Pisa forum may shed some fresh light, but the two bodies say it is still unclear what impact the recent attacks will have on the perceived safety of Germany and France.
Despite the sombre outlook, one bright note was struck last month when officials for the region stretching west from the Italian border to Marseille, Montpellier and Perpignan, reported indications that the overall decrease would be limited to 0.5 per cent.
But Nice inevitably fared much worse, with hotel bookings 20.5 per cent down in high season compared with last year and the government is being urged to provide aid for the Cote d’Azur as it did for Paris after November 13. No one can be sure when, or even if, the resort can triumph over tragedy and fully regain its historic allure.
Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter