It is understandable that the carnage in both Syria and Iraq dominates the media and continues to tell the story of the rise and rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.

Away from the epicentre of violence, however, attacks such as the Sinai plane bombing, the Tunisian hotel shootings, the Jakarta attacks, the Burkina Faso attacks and the recent bombing in Istanbul have the potential not only to destroy a tourism sector that hundreds of thousands of people rely on for work, but also succeeds in further dividing the people of the region from the rest of the world, whose people are increasingly nervous about travelling there.

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, the number of international tourists rose by 4.4 percent worldwide in 2015 to hit a record 1.18 billion. Globalisation has made the world a smaller place but it has also made it possible for images and news to be shared instantaneously.

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The nature of modern communications means that terror attacks can dominate the headlines and scenes of hotels on fire, plane wreckage smouldering in the Sinai or bloodied tourists fleeing the area near Istanbul's Blue Mosque are seen by millions.

Luxor's tourism

It should come as little surprise, therefore, that visits to North Africa fell by 8 percent last year. Annual visitor numbers to Egypt are down from 14 million in 2010 to a projected 9 million this year.  

On November 17, 1997, gunmen shot and killed 62 people, mainly tourists, at the Hatshepsut’s Temple in Luxor, Egypt. I visited the country a year later and found the areas historic sites virtually devoid of tourists and the large hotels largely empty of guests.

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The town's tourism sector took a hammering for the next few years as fearful tourists stayed away. Six gunmen carrying AK-47s and knives had put the development of a tourism industry and the lives of tens of thousands of Luxor residents on hold.

The growth of ISIL and the seemingly new phenomenon of 'self-radicalised' fighters, changes the nature of risk across the Middle East and North Africa region and has led Western governments to issue travel advice ...


Yet that was in 1997 and there were no shaky videos from iPhones showing the carnage and fearful tourists dashing for safety.

Today very little is missed and the single killing spree of a Tunisian gunman was captured in all of its gory detail as he murdered 38 people. The killings and warnings of more to come sparked panic and more scenes of tourists stranded at airports, desperate to get out of the country.

Some 400,000 people work in the tourism sector in Tunisia which is now, according to the Tunisian minister of tourism, at "crisis point" as hotels close and more people are made unemployed.

The growth of ISIL and the seemingly new phenomenon of "self-radicalised" fighters, changes the nature of risk across the Middle East and North Africa region and has led Western governments to issue travel advice that unsurprisingly puts off tourists, who are seeking fun and relaxation, from going there.

What is more, flooding areas popular with tourists with heavily armed military or police personnel can ruin the vibe of a relaxing holiday and encourage more people to stay away.

Caliphate versus world

ISIL is pushing a narrative of the "Caliphate versus the rest of the world" and in terms of strategic investment the return they get from attacks on tourists is huge.

Chaos is wrought, headlines are won, the economies of enemy states are damaged and the gap between peoples are increased as the Middle East steadily is divided into red and green zones.

In Syria and Iraq, ISIL is going one step further and preventing tourism of the future in a systematic destruction of historic sites with Iraq's oldest Christian monastery the latest to be destroyed.

The only silver lining to this grim state of affairs when it comes to the region's tourism is that arrivals to the Middle East increased by 3 percent last year to a total of 54 million.

The Gulf States with their towering skyscrapers and giant shopping malls, and the hidden gem that is the Sultanate of Oman, are seemingly the recipients of chaos elsewhere.

Yet as we look forward to 2016, European countries must do more to help support the tourism industries of the region, otherwise the division that ISIL so desperately seeks will become more entrenched. 

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera