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Australia must prepare tourist operators for terror

By Anthony Bergin

On Sunday Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull released a strategy on protecting mass gatherings. One industry that should closely examine the blueprint are the owners and operators of tourist places that attract crowds.

The strategy is certainly timely given the mass run-downs we've seen conducted by Islamist extremists overseas. Las Ramblas is one of Barcelona's top tourist drawcards. Last year Islamic State called on its followers to attack Spanish tourist sites. Target selection in terrorist attacks isn't indiscriminate. The Australian tourism industry and related tourism infrastructure are possible terrorist targets, particularly as these facilities are places of mass gatherings.

What motivates terrorists to target tourists and tourist infrastructure? Tourists are symbolic of the freedom of movement. Tourism is one of the main elements of economic power in a modern economy. For many countries tourism represents a significant source of employment, so attacking the tourist industry is very damaging. Tourism infrastructure often involves the large assembly of people, making them vulnerable to mass casualty terrorism.

Targeting foreign tourists also attracts international media attention and media coverage provides the "oxygen" for such groups. Targeting tourists creates an inherent sense of vulnerability.

Hard to target specific nationalities

For practical reasons, it's hard for terrorists to target a particular nationality, but the differences between tourists are less relevant to terrorists than the similarities: for radical Islamists, tourists are symbols of Western influence and regimes seen as the enemy.

The Australian tourism industry needs to factor terrorist threats into business risks for some time to come. Tourism employs around one in 12 Australians. Business tourism is less discretionary than other parts of the sector and would require a fast return to normalcy. Our smaller tourist operators would look to the Australian government for assistance and compensation in the event of a terrorist attack at a tourist site here.

Any terrorist attack in Australia would see foreign governments adjust their advisory warnings on travel to Australia. State tourism authorities responsible for destination management would be best placed to handle the response for domestic tourism to a terrorist incident and Tourism Australia for international tourism. Tourism should be part of the whole-of-government counter-terrorism response and recovery arrangements in each jurisdiction.

The tourism industry response to a terrorist incident would essentially be a communications response: messages must get through to consumers who may be affected in the immediate aftermath of an incident. Tourism crisis management plans would need to be implemented quite quickly as well as image rebuilding and marketing programs.

Training needed

Now is the time for the Australian tourism industry to re-examine their security training, put security plans in place if they have not done so, review physical security, (especially the risk to hostile vehicle attack), and evacuation procedures and evaluate staff vetting.

Government should use local tourism bureaus and associations to reach small operators not represented by peak bodies to help with risk management. State police need to engage more with the tourist industry on security issues and best practice, as well as involving them in drills and exercises.

Hotels will need to continually review their security procedures. Hotel staff should be trained for the psychological demands needed in the event of a major security incident. Police will need to liaise with hotels, major tourism service providers and private security agencies on security planning.

Knowledge of relevant contact points within and between the tourist industry and government agencies involved in security and emergency response should be strengthened.

Security measures for the tourism sector may be double-edged. Many tourism operators won't want a heavy police or private security presence around tourist attractions. They'll want to reassure travellers, not place restrictions on tourists enjoying their holiday.

But times are changing and many travellers these days will be reassured by a strong police presence on the streets or even the army conducting overt patrols, as occurs in France.

Anthony Bergin is a senior research fellow at ANU's National Security College and a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Originally published by: Australian Financial Review on 20 Aug 2017