International Travelers Brushing Off the Paris Attacks

December 16, 2015

Holly Whitman

CC Flickr, Alan Levine, modified, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

 

Even today, the September 11th terrorist attacks play a regular role in international travel. The events of that fateful day have had a measurable impact on the very culture of travel, to say nothing about the lasting changes the developed world has made to its security and screening procedures.

After the latest high-profile outburst of violence, this time in Paris, the world is experiencing similar shockwaves of cause-and-effect, though only time will tell how long-lived these effects will be.

 

The Global Economy

The first and most measurable impact of the Paris attacks is purely economic. It says a lot about the times we’re living in that stocks in airlines, cruise lines, and booking sites began reeling immediately after the events in Paris.

Major airlines, along with websites specializing in airfare, such as Expedia, were among the S&P’s worst performers on the first Monday after the attacks. In addition, growth in the euro zone crawled to a paltry 0.3% in the third quarter of 2015, which was well below analysts’ estimates.

Nevertheless, sharp changes in stock prices and currency values are usually a short-lived consequence of terrorist attacks. The longer-term impacts may be felt for quite some time, and they could manifest into longer-lived downturns in travel and immigration thanks to tighter borders across the world, longer waits at security checkpoints, and the general sense of shared fear and panic that accompanies any high-profile violent act.

 

Not Just about People

So let’s move past stock prices and focus for a moment on something fundamental to the efficient functioning of modern civilization — the travel not of citizens, but of trade goods between international borders.

The news there, at least so far, has been less than encouraging. Heightened security all across the globe, and particularly in Europe, has caused severe bottlenecks for goods traveling across pan-European trade routes. This has created an even worse-than-usual slowing of manufacturing output, which had already been reduced to a crawl in recent years. It’s not enough to cause meaningful shortages of essential products, but economists are taking note.

 

The State Department Responds

Back on US soil, the State Department was quick to address rising public fears surrounding international travel, providing a worldwide alert for US citizens warning of “risks of travel due to increased terrorist threats.” It’s a standing warning set to expire early next year on February 24th. Potential sources of danger called out in the message include theaters, sporting arenas, aviation facilities, open-air markets, and other entertainment and commerce venues.

But if that sounds like a pretty standard warning to you these days, you’re not alone. So to better understand the real-world risks following a known terrorist attack, the Washington Post reached out to Michelle Bernier-Toth, the managing director for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.

Interestingly, she reported that most of the calls her department received were from American citizens letting them know they were safe. The more important course of action, though, according to Toth, is to call home first to let friends and loved ones know you’re out of harm’s way.

But in the course of the interview, Toth also highlighted a particularly telling sign of the times — something called the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which sends out messages to travelers concerning threats and ongoing attacks.

This program isn’t new since Paris. Rather, it’s a symptom of the widespread culture of fear that’s managed to permeate society on a global level. In other words, it’s a service that didn’t exist just a few short years ago, and it’s one most people likely couldn’t have imagined would one day even be necessary.

 

A Muted Response

Even with all of the fear surrounding international travel and with experts and laypeople alike circulating their dos and don’ts about whether to travel or stay put, a remarkable thing is happening. Although September 11th represented probably the most significant downturn for the travel industry, subsequent acts of violence have elicited a much more muted response.

Demand for hotel rooms abroad, for example, dipped only slightly following this recent attack.

So the question before us is this: Are we becoming less fearful generally, or have we simply become desensitized in a world where shocking acts of violence are, if not more common, at least better televised? If the purpose of terrorism is to instill fear in a complacent world, then that same world seems to have responded with an attitude that says, “Carry on with business as usual, or the terrorists win.”

That kind of solidarity and willfulness is admirable, and it appears to demonstrate a general trend toward the acceptance of the fact that risk exists everywhere we look. We take our lives into our hands every time we slide behind the wheel of a car, for example.

 

Hope from Chaos

And yet, there’s one final aspect of international travel that will be feeling the consequences of Paris for a long time to come: the travel of refugees. Even if the average person seems to have made their peace with booking a spot at a Sandals resort or boarding a Delta flight, Americans — and the leaders they’ve chosen for themselves — are now looking at political and economic refugees with the kind of mistrust we haven’t seen for a generation.

Why? One of the attackers complicit in the Paris attacks, Ahmad Al Mohammad, purportedly arrived in France after posing as a Syrian refugee in Greece.

In any event, it’s clear that moving between international borders is an act that’s fraught with controversy, complications, fear, and mistrust — and yet, an unlikely ray of hope. At a time when it’s never been more important to come together as a species, even across lines drawn on a map, travel should be the one thing that gets easier — not harder.

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