Tunisia’s battered beauty and the hopes for revival of a once booming tourism sector


Last year, Tunisia was the third most attractive tourist destination in Africa. 6 million foreigners visited the country and helped it generate over $7 billion for tourism sector; this accounted for 6.5 percent of the GDP. A series of terrorist attacks this year is threatening to throw that all away. European countries, whose citizens make up the the most number of Tunisia’s visitors, are pulling out their citizens from the North African country and warning those at home to stay clear.

If the terrorist attack on the Bardo museum in March, which left 21 tourists and three others dead, had foreigners in the country worried, the killing of another 38 now has them leaving the country. “The FCO [British Foreign Office] said it was working with tour operators including Thomas Cook and TUI Travel, to bring holidaymakers back to the UK,” Reuters news agency reported on Friday July 10. Thomas Cook and other tour operators are currently taking some 3,000 British visitors back home. A blow for a country that had 400,000 holidaymakers from Britain in 2014.

The UK government has been urging its people in Tunisia to leave. “Since the attack in Sousse the intelligence and threat picture has developed considerably, leading us to the view that a further terrorist attack is highly likely,” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in a statement which advised British tourists to leave the country. But the statement has angered the Tunisian government which insists it has put in place measures that guarantee the safety of tourists. “This is what the terrorists want,” the BBC quoted Nabil Ammar, the Tunisian ambassador to Britain, as saying. “Hotels have to close and this is an important industry.” Ammar’s statement comes after the Tunisian government deployed about 3,000 armed policemen to guard hotels and beaches around the country and to protect tourists.

Tourism has always been one of the major sectors of Tunisia’s economy. Tourists, mainly from Europe, have always been drawn to its cosmopolitan capital city of Tunis, the ancient ruins of Carthage, the Muslim and Jewish quarters of Jerba, and the coastal resorts and beaches. However, the tourism sector has suffered repeatedly from sociopolitical turmoil. The first real drop for the industry came after Al Qaeda’s attack on the US in September 2001. Visitors dropped by around a million, but rose again starting in 2003. The next drop came with the Arab Spring which saw Tunisia’s sit-tight leader, Ben Ali, removed from office by nationwide popular protests.

The tourism industry was just starting to recover from the adverse effects of the Arab spring when these terror strikes halted growth again. After dipping in 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, tourist arrivals began to swell by 2012, with 5.7 million visits, and in the excess of 6 million visits in 2013 and 2014. This year’s figures, though not yet known, will probably be lower than that of three years ago.

Still, Tunisia has what it takes to bounce back. The golden beaches, sunny weather are not going anywhere. And the lure of the ancient Carthagian architecture will not fade away. What the country needs is to fix its security system and address the root causes of terrorism- among them poverty and youth unemployment. The government has declared a state of emergency and beefed up security at across the country. On Friday, security forces killed five Islamist militants in clashes in the mountains near the central town of Gafsa. These are good measures, but only in the short term. Only long term solutions that guarantee safety and political stability will bring back the tourists and put the tourism sector on a steady path to growth.

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