I’m no stranger to terrorism.
The Marathon bombings in Boston happened just a few blocks from my office. And fate had me in Paris on Friday the 13th last year when the horrific shootings made it painfully clear that choosing which restaurant to dine at or which concert to attend was, at least for one night, a life-or-death decision.
Like natural disasters, disease, political unrest or economic upheavals, we have come to add terrorism to the list of things the travel industry increasingly needs to deal with, but can’t directly control.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution for eliminating terrorism or any sign it’s about to go away.
When terrorists strike a gay nightclub in Orlando or a company party in Sacramento or behead a priest in a tiny town in Normandy, France, it should remind us that terrorists no longer reserve their evil for major cities or high-profile events. Sadly, we are all vulnerable.
The Global Terrorism Database lists more than 57,000 terrorist-related incidents worldwide over the past five years alone. And those numbers continue to grow.
Aside from the tragic loss of life and property, the business and psychological impact on local communities and the traveling public can be severe and lasting. No one wants to spend a holiday traveling anywhere near harm’s way. And the World Travel & Tourism Council estimates that it takes 13 months for a destination to recover from a terrorist attack.
As governments attempt to combat the crisis by beefing up security and deploying military tactics, and politicians threaten to build walls and tighten immigration, our industry would benefit by exploring how we might play some role in helping to potentially prevent or reduce the likelihood of terrorism, rather than just react to it.
Of course, determining what prompts terrorism is itself a debatable and complex subject. However, there’s significant evidence that if we can give people hope, purpose and opportunity, then we might be able to plant the kind of seeds that ultimately steer people away from the influence and recruitment of terrorist groups.
An interesting example of how the industry might be able to address issues like migration, assimilation and poverty—all of which can be contributors to terrorism—is being played out at the Magdas Hotel in Vienna. Over 70% of the property’s staff arrived in Austria as refugees and the hotel’s primary purpose is to offer immigrants jobs and training. The chic, 78-room property is run by the charity Caritas and the organization sees itself as making a political statement with the hotel that legal immigrants should be able to work legally.
In Cape Town, South Africa, there is an organization called Scalabrini whose mission is to alleviate poverty, promote development in the Western Cape and foster integration among migrants, refugees and South Africans. To that end, they created an 11-room guest house that employs migrants to help run and manage the facility.
In Tanzania, the Watoto Foundation runs the Kiboko Lodge, which is the world’s first facility of its kind run by former street children. All the income from the lodge goes to projects that are designed to help educate and support homeless children.
Similarly, there are restaurant concepts being developed around the world that offer opportunity to displaced people that are proving to be life changing.
The Skuhna in Slovenia positions itself as a multicultural café that staffs its kitchen with immigrants who are responsible for the daily menu. More than just a place to dine, the café also serves as a gathering place where the local community can interact and discuss and share experiences.
Another highly successful organization is Friends the Restaurant which operates in both Vietnam and Laos. Started over 10 years ago, the restaurants provide opportunities and training for marginalized youth, giving them a chance to not only gain employment, but to learn skills that can help them establish a career in the service industry.
Beyond providing training and delivering jobs, our industry also has an opportunity to help educate travelers to different perspectives that can create deeper understanding and greater tolerance.
At MEJDI Tours, co-founder and CEO Aziz Abu Sarah believes that “tourism should be a vehicle for a more positive and interconnected world.” His tours are focused on providing guests with a very balanced and objective view of the areas that they visit by examining all sides of the sociopolitical and religious issues that might be shaping a destination. By having both an Israeli and Palestinian tour guide jointly leading a program, travelers can experience the arguments and perspectives shared and debated by both sides. Similarly, both a Christian and Protestant guide would lead you through Northern Ireland, and Muslim and Christian guides would help you to both explore and understand the situation in Egypt.
The MEJDI website reminds us why a concerted effort by our industry could make an impact: “We are all connected by shared values that cross cultures, languages, religions, nationalities and ethnicities—and that there is far more that unites us than separates us.”
While the travel industry alone can’t eliminate terrorism, these examples illustrate that there’s an important role we can all potentially play in helping bring hope, opportunity and understanding to those who see none.
And that’s something we all need to embrace.