Tunisia keen to show tourists that it’s safe to return
Earlier this month, the Tunisian National Tourist Office screened footage of recent, peaceful scenes from some of the country’s most iconic destinations on graphic panels in five European cities, including one at the entrance to London’s Old Spitalfields Market.
The film – which featured Sidi Bou Said and Hammamet and oasis town Touzeur and was shown simultaneously in London, Paris, Berlin, Brussels and Milan – is part of an attempt to resuscitate the tourist sector one year on from the terrorist attack in Sousse on 26 June. The Imperial Merhaba, scene of last year’s massacre, was just one of 192 hotels to shut down within six months of the attack. European visitor numbers have plunged by almost 58%.
Last week, as I travelled along the coast between the capital Tunis and Sousse, there was little to suggest that the coming high season will mark a change in the tide. Forests of thatched parasols dotted near-deserted beaches, loungers remained stacked in orderly ranks. The corniche in Hammamet, with its huge resort hotels, felt as though it had been abandoned, so empty was it of traffic and people.
In the UK, home to 30 of the Sousse victims, Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice imposed last July warns against all but essential travel to every part of Tunisia. This has led to large tour companies halting charter flights carrying UK tourists to . Despite petitions from Tunisian officials to relax the ban, including a recent plea from the ambassador in London, the warning is still in place going into peak season. As a result, the number of British arrivals, which looked set to break records in the early months of 2015, has fallen by 93.2% for the first five months of this year.
“The English were my number one customers,” says Omar Charda, sitting beside his stall of ceramic bowls on the outskirts of the Sousse medina. “Without them we cannot live.”
His is a pessimism shared by many of the estimated 470,000 people working in Tunisian tourism, an industry that accounts for 15% of the country’s GDP. Though keen not to downplay the horror of Sousse, many feel aggrieved about the UK’s advisory, pointing to recent atrocities in Paris and Brussels where subsequent travel warnings were used sparingly.
“We respect Britain’s need to protect its people, but the whole country has been penalised by this decision,” says Tarek Aouadi, director of the Tunisian National Tourist Office in London. “You are telling the terrorists that they are winning.” Officials such as Aouadi are anxious to highlight the increased security post-Sousse. Security wands, metal detectors and under-car mirrors are now in regular use at hotels and tourist attractions. Armed police on quad bikes patrol the beaches – reassuring but not the most relaxing sight on a fly-and-flop holiday.
“There is, understandably, no demand for Tunisia, so we’re not operating any trips,” says Ted Wake of , which ran cultural trips to the country. “One day it will be back, it’s a wonderful place, but it’s impossible to say when.”
Meanwhile, the Tunisian tourist board’s plans include branching out from the mass-market by encouraging more independent travellers.
“It feels completely safe,” says Bob Purvis, an engineer from Rutland who, like most Brits still travelling to Tunisia, has come on business. “I took some photos this morning and sent them to my wife saying we should come here on holiday.”
Tunisia will be hoping he does, and that others soon follow.