Brussels terror attack has altered perceptions of the continent’s safety

The impact of the Brussels terror onslaught was immediate. Within days, occupancy rates at some hotels in the city plunged to just 25%, according to preliminary estimates from STR, a company that tracks hotel industry data. The rate had been 82% the night before the bombings.

Other European cities felt ripple effects. Hotel-occupancy rates in London slid to 58% by last Thursday, and those in Paris fell to 67%, according to STR. Those figures, based on a sample of hotels in each city, represent declines of 24.7 percentage points and 15.1 percentage points, respectively, compared with rates a year earlier, the company said.

For Europe, a thriving travel industry has been crucial in sustaining the region’s fragile economic recovery. Hospitality and tourism make up about a 10th of the region’s gross domestic product, economists estimate.

The industry was already bracing for slower growth after Paris: The United Nations’ World Travel Organization in January forecast a 3.5% to 4.5% rise in international tourist arrivals in Europe this year, below the 5% increase in 2015. U.K. travel firm Thomas Cooksaid last week that its summer bookings were 5% lower than last year.

“The uncertain geopolitical environment is causing some customers to postpone booking their holidays,” Chief Executive Peter Fankhauser said.

The March 22 bomb blasts in Brussels, which killed at least 34 people and wounded more than 300, came four months after the deadly terror attacks in Paris had already reduced travel to Europe, by far the most-visited region in the world.

“This is going to be more protracted,” said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of industry advocacy group the Business Travel Coalition, pointing to news reports of breakdowns in communication between European intelligence agencies and failure to recognize the threat posed by the attackers.

“If there are additional plots in the pipeline, and if Europe is in fact overwhelmed, then this could really drag on,” he said.

An alert issued the day of the attacks by the U.S. State Department seemed to indicate this possibility, as well. “Terrorist groups continue to plan near-term attacks throughout Europe, targeting sporting events, tourist sites, restaurants, and transportation,” it said.

“From a tourism perspective, it’s definitely very bad news, having the U.S. travel advisory against all of Europe,” said Lynn Minnaert, an assistant professor of tourism at the Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism at New York University (and a Belgian native).

“Travel from the U.S. will take a nosedive,” she said. “I’ve never seen an advisory against a whole continent before.”

Early samplings of leisure traveler sentiment seemed to bear out Minnaert’s prediction. An online poll conducted by Skift.com found that 20 percent of American travelers with plans to visit Europe over the summer months had already canceled their bookings, and another 28 percent were considering doing so.

“We are facing some cancellations coming from groups or individual tourists travelling for leisure purpose,” Sophie Ratouis, a spokeswoman for AccorHotels, said via email.

“These cancellations mostly affect hotels in Brussels.”

She said Accor was letting guests with bookings in Belgium through April 10 cancel without penalty, or postpone and re-book through September 30.