The terror attacks in Brussels on Tuesday are likely to be devastating — at least temporarily — for the city’s tourism industry, which is expected to see an immediate impact during the Easter holiday Sunday, when visitors typically flock to historic churches and museums or frequent establishments selling the country’s famed chocolate products.
The attacks comes just as Brussels looked to move past its most recent instance of terrorism, which has marred the city’s public image for tourists and caused local officials to search desperately for a way to reassure travelers that the city is safe.
Easter is "a very, very busy part of Brussels, and it was at a time when people were all going to work and going about what would have been an ordinary, normal Tuesday in Brussels. So the effect is going to be pretty catastrophic on Brussels," Richard Ashworth, a conservative member of the European Parliament from Britain, told CNBC. "I remember back to the last lockdown [around] Christmas, the town was simply deserted — a town which at Christmas is heaving with tourists. Now we're coming to the Easter break — no doubt a peak time for tourism in Brussels — and yet again for the town, this is going to be quite catastrophic I'd have thought."
In the immediate aftermath of the explosions Tuesday from separate bombings at an airport and a subway station, there were clear indications that tourism in the city would be impacted by the attacks that left at least 30 people dead and hundreds more injured. Flights were quickly canceled, and railways in and out of the city were shut down early Tuesday. European airline stocks quickly dropped alongside tourism indices. There were some reports that hotels began to receive cancelations, as well.
Those depressed stocks included the FTSE 350 Travel and Leisure indices, which fell 1.1 percent. As for airlines, the IAG and easyJet stock dropped 2.4 percent and 0.9 percent, respectively. Carnival Cruises and TUI Travel also fell, 0.9 percent and 2.3 percent, according to Reuters.
As the sun sets in Paris, the Eiffel Tower is lit up in the Belgian flag colors following attacks in Brussels. pic.twitter.com/WkJUVuZxCR
— CNBC (@CNBC) March 22, 2016
— The New York Times (@nytimes) March 22, 2016
Brussels, which also houses the headquarters of the European Union, is an interconnected, global city known as much for its important place in modern European politics as it is for beer, medieval architecture and the chocolates that attract millions of visitors every year.
The city is well-known for its rich cultural history. Tourists were once as likely to visit the small, famous bronze sculpture of Mannekin Pis as they were to take a stroll through the city’s beautiful Grand-Place and visit Atomium, a giant metal atom originally constructed for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. But following the Paris terror attacks late last year and the ensuing manhunt that seized Brussels afterward, the city’s image has become closely associated with terrorism.
There were 7.7 million tourists who visited Belgium in 2013, according to the most recent available statistics. But the shutdown has led a Brussels tourism agency, known as Visit Brussels, to undertake a public relations initiative reassuring tourists that the city is a safe place to visit. The shutdown in Brussels after the Paris attacks cost an estimated €51.7 million ($57.9 million) per day.
— Guardian news (@guardiannews) March 22, 2016
— TIME.com (@TIME) March 22, 2016
Two months after the Paris attacks, hoteliers there had lost hundreds of millions of Euros collectively. Airlines were forced to suspend flights, and the number of visitors to the Eiffel Tower sunk significantly. The city consequently saw luxury hotel bookings drop by 50 percent and experienced a 30 percent drop in hotel bookings overall, according to Time. The total cost of the Paris attacks in France was expected to reach into the hundreds of billions of dollars, primarily as a result of closed borders and the lengthy searches those entail. Belgium reportedly closed its borders following Tuesday’s attacks as well.
“We’ve never been in this kind of situation. It isn’t just one event, it is a series of events, so it might take longer to recover,” Julien Richer, hotels and tourism analyst at Raymond James, told the Wall Street Journal Tuesday.
The fear of continued attacks could spill over into other cities as well, Richer said. Cities like London, Paris or Madrid could be impacted by the Brussels attacks. The November attacks in Paris prove that there is a spillover effect, too, as Berlin felt a decline in Christmas shopping and Italy saw a 50 percent decline in cinema ticket sales.
Many major tourism companies had yet to completely recover in the past few months, including Air France-KLM and AccorHotels. It seems unlikely that they will have an easy time going forward after Brussels.
Whether or not the city will ultimately be able to recover from those attacks will remain to be seen, but many other cities have rebounded from terrorist attacks. Bombings in other European cities — like the July 2005 bus and subway bombings in London — didn’t ultimately have a long-term effect, and visits to the city rose 5 percent later in that year after the initial fall in demand.