Saturday 21 January 2017

Bullet holes and empty beaches: the bleak outlook for Tunisia's tourism

A total of 39 tourists were killed on Tunisia's paradise beaches last Friday. What does this mean for the two million Tunisians who live off the tourism industry?

Patrick Markey

Published 01/07/2015 | 09:14

A woman carries flowers on the beach near the RIU Imperial Marhaba hotel in Sousse, Tunisia, as British holidaymakers defy the terrorists and continue to stay in Sousse despite the bloodbath on the beach: Steve Parsons/PA Wire
A woman carries flowers on the beach near the RIU Imperial Marhaba hotel in Sousse, Tunisia, as British holidaymakers defy the terrorists and continue to stay in Sousse despite the bloodbath on the beach: Steve Parsons/PA Wire
People pay their respects on the beach near the RIU Imperial Marhaba hotel in Sousse, Tunisia, as British holidaymakers defy the terrorists and continue to stay in Sousse despite the bloodbath on the beach. Steve Parsons/PA Wire
Flowers laid on the beach near the RIU Imperial Marhaba hotel in Sousse, Tunisia, as British holidaymakers defy the terrorists and continue to stay in Sousse despite the bloodbath on the beach. Steve Parsons/PA Wire
Flowers laid on the beach near the RIU Imperial Marhaba hotel in Sousse, Tunisia, as British holidaymakers defy the terrorists and continue to stay in Sousse despite the bloodbath on the beach. Steve Parsons/PA Wire
People pay their respects on the beach near the RIU Imperial Marhaba hotel in Sousse, Tunisia, as British holidaymakers defy the terrorists and continue to stay in Sousse despite the bloodbath on the beach. Steve Parsons/PA Wire
British holidaymakers lay flowers on the beach near the RIU Imperial Marhaba hotel in Sousse, Tunisia, as British holidaymakers defy the terrorists and continue to stay in Sousse despite the bloodbath on the beach. Steve Parsons/PA Wire
People pay their respects on the beach near the RIU Imperial Marhaba hotel in Sousse, Tunisia, as British holidaymakers defy the terrorists and continue to stay in Sousse despite the bloodbath on the beach. Steve Parsons/PA Wire

Tunisian shopkeeper Aghmi Bubaker doesn't need to be told that he is experiencing the worst threat yet to his forty-year career in tourism - the bullet hole in his battered green Mercedes Benz is a daily reminder.

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Last Friday when a gunman attacked the Imperial Marhaba hotel in Sousse in the name of Islamist militancy, Bubaker rushed dozens of holidaymakers into his store until the shooting - in which 39 foreign tourists were killed - was over.

Now, looking at his car and bullet holes in nearby walls, Bubaker wonders whether his country's tourism industry is at an end too. Thousands have left the North African country since Friday and the government estimates the sector will lose $500 million this year - a quarter of last year's total revenues.

"If tourists don't come back, it's over," Bubaker said outside his store filled with flags, T-shirts and crafts.

"It's not just me, it's two million Tunisians who live off this business, hotels, taxis, stores, restaurants."

Friday's attack hit at the heartland of Tunisia's Mediterranean beach resorts, popular with Europeans who make up a portion of the six million holidaymakers who visit each year places like Sousse, Hammamet and the island of Djerba.

Targeting tourists and sparing Tunisians, the gunman Saif Rezgui shot his way through the hotel, leaving bodies on the beach, before he was killed by police. Most victims were Britons and authorities are still investigating his militant ties.

It is the second attack against a Tunisian tourism this year after the massacre in March at the Bardo museum in Tunis where two gunmen opened fire on tourists as they arrived by bus. Spanish, Italian and Japanese were among the 21 dead.

People hold hands as they pray in a circle around bouquets of flowers laid in tribute on the beach of the Imperial Marhaba resort, which was attacked by a gunman, in Sousse, Tunisia, June 28, 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
People hold hands as they pray in a circle around bouquets of flowers laid in tribute on the beach of the Imperial Marhaba resort, which was attacked by a gunman, in Sousse, Tunisia, June 28, 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
People place flowers on the beach of the Imperial Marhaba resort, which was attacked by a gunman, in Sousse, Tunisia, June 28, 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Women react on the beach of the Imperial Marhaba resort, which was attacked by a gunman, in Sousse, Tunisia, June 28, 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
A family reacts beside flowers laid on the beach of the Imperial Marhaba resort, which was attacked by a gunman, in Sousse, Tunisia, June 28, 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Russian tourists are seen shopping at the old medina in Sousse, Tunisia, June 28, 2015.REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Residents of the coastal town of Sousse in Tunisia place flowers and messages during a gathering at the scene of Friday's shooting attack, Sunday, June 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar)
People place lit candles in the sand in front of the Imperial Marhaba Hotel, where a gunman had carried out an attack, in Sousse, Tunisia, June 28, 2015. REUTERS/Zohra BensemraÄ®
People place lit candles in the sand in front of the Imperial Marhaba Hotel, where a gunman had carried out an attack, in Sousse, Tunisia, June 28, 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
A lit candle is seen in the sand in front of the Imperial Marhaba Hotel, where a gunman carried out an attack, in Sousse, Tunisia, June 28, 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
A woman holds a child as they sit near lit candles in the sand in front of the Imperial Marhaba Hotel, where a gunman carried out an attack, in Sousse, Tunisia, June 28, 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
People hold candles as they walk to the beach of the Imperial Marhaba Hotel, where a gunman had carried out an attack, in Sousse, Tunisia, June 28, 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
People hold candles as they walk to the beach of the Imperial Marhaba Hotel, where a gunman had carried out an attack, in Sousse, Tunisia, June 28, 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
People hold candles as they walk to the beach of the Imperial Marhaba Hotel, where a gunman had carried out an attack, in Sousse, Tunisia, June 28, 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
People hold candles as they walk to the beach of the Imperial Marhaba Hotel, where a gunman had carried out an attack, in Sousse, Tunisia, June 28, 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
An unidentified tourist places flowers at the scene of Friday's shooting attack in the coastal town of Sousse, Tunisia, Sunday, June 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar)
Residents of the coastal town of Sousse in Tunisia place flowers and messages during a gathering at the scene of Friday's shooting attack, Sunday, June 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar)
Men carry chairs at the entrance of the house of Saif Rezgui, a gunman who shot 39 tourists on the beach of the Imperial Marhaba Hotel, in Gaafour, Tunisia, June 28, 2015. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi
Women pray near bouquets of flowers laid on the beach of the Imperial Marhaba resort, which was attacked by a gunman, in Sousse, Tunisia, June 28, 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
A police officer patrols the beach near the Imperial Marhaba resort, which was attacked by a gunman in Sousse, Tunisia, June 29, 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
A police officer stands guard near the Imperial Marhaba resort, which was attacked by a gunman in Sousse, Tunisia, June 29, 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Tourists pay their respects in front of a makeshift memorial at the beach near the Imperial Marhaba resort, which was attacked by a gunman in Sousse, Tunisia, June 29, 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Messages and flowers are placed at the beach of the Imperial Marhaba resort, which was attacked by a gunman in Sousse, Tunisia, June 29, 2015. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Targeting tourism in Tunisia appears a deliberate strategy.

The country is just emerging into full democracy after its 2011 uprising against autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and is at a sensitive juncture as the new government tries to kickstart the economy and create the jobs demanded by young Tunisians.

Tourism provides seven percent of gross domestic product, a major source of foreign currency revenues and the largest source of employment outside agriculture. Unlike its wealthy neigbours Algeria and Libya, it has few natural resources like oil.

With its clear Mediterranean waters, solid tourist infrastructure and desert treks to the south, Tunisia has until now been popular with Europeans, attracting 760,000 trips by French holidaymakers, 425,000 by Germans and 400,000 by Britons in 2014, according to Euromonitor International.

By Monday at least 8,000 Britons had already been flown home, according to holiday companies TUI Group and Thomas Cook, as the UK government said the final death toll of its citizens was likely to be around 30 people.

The sector had only just started to recover after the Bardo museum attack, after which French tourist bookings dropped 40 percent.

International arrivals to Tunisia rose 4 percent from 2013 to 2014, Euromonitor said, but the attack put that at risk.

"This growth is highly dependent on the safety and stability in Tunisia," said Euromonitor travel analyst Nadejda Popova.

British holiday companies such as Thomas Cook, Monarch and Jet2, have offered customers booked to go to Tunisia in the next few weeks the free option of cancelling or amending holidays.

But the attack may have a much longer term impact.

A spokesman for Britain's travel business group ABTA compared it with the killing of 62 people, mostly tourists, near to Luxor in Egypt in 1997. After that attack, bookings did not return to previous levels for four to five years.

Tunisian security forces secure the area after gunmen attacked Tunis' famed Bardo Museum on March 18, 2015. At least seven foreigners and a Tunisian were killed in an attack by two men armed with assault rifles on the museum, the interior ministry said. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAIDFETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
Tunisian security forces secure the area after gunmen attacked Tunis' famed Bardo Museum on March 18, 2015. At least seven foreigners and a Tunisian were killed in an attack by two men armed with assault rifles on the museum, the interior ministry said. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAIDFETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
Armed Tunisian policemen in plainclothes stop a vehicle as security forces secure the area after gunmen attacked Tunis' famed Bardo Museum on March 18, 2015. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAIDFETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
An armed Tunisian policeman in plainclothes stops a vehicle as security forces secure the area after gunmen attacked Tunis' famed Bardo Museum on March 18, 2015. At least seven foreigners and a Tunisian were killed in an attack by two men armed with assault rifles on the museum, the interior ministry said. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAIDFETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
Tunisian security forces secure the area after gunmen attacked Tunis' famed Bardo Museum on March 18, 2015. At least seven foreigners and a Tunisian were killed in an attack by two men armed with assault rifles on the museum, the interior ministry said. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAIDFETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
Tunisian security forces secure the area after gunmen attacked Tunis' famed Bardo Museum on March 18, 2015. At least seven foreigners and a Tunisian were killed in an attack by two men armed with assault rifles on the museum, the interior ministry said. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAIDFETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
Tunisian security forces secure the area after gunmen attacked Tunis' famed Bardo Museum on March 18, 2015. At least seven foreigners and a Tunisian were killed in an attack by two men armed with assault rifles on the museum, the interior ministry said. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAIDFETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
Tunisian security forces secure the area after gunmen attacked Tunis' famed Bardo Museum on March 18, 2015. At least seven foreigners and a Tunisian were killed in an attack by two men armed with assault rifles on the museum, the interior ministry said. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAIDFETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
Tunisian security forces secure the area after gunmen attacked Tunis' famed Bardo Museum on March 18, 2015. At least seven foreigners and a Tunisian were killed in an attack by two men armed with assault rifles on the museum, the interior ministry said. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAIDFETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

About 100,000 French tourists had booked for July in Tunisia and at this stage 75 percent had decided to cancel their trip, according to Jean-Pierre Mas, Chairman of French travel agency federation SNAV.

"The impact is very strong. The summer season is lost (for Tunisia)," he said.

Visiting British, German and French ministers in Sousse on Monday were quick to express solidarity with Tunisia and offer cooperation on frontier and airport security.

But it wasn't enough for other tour companies who are already taking more drastic action.

Sweden's Ving, part of Britain's Thomas Cook Group, cancelled all Tunisia departures out to October 20.

Detur, the tour operator in Sweden with the largest amount of passengers in Tunisia, and part of Dutch Detur International, has cancelled all its departures to the country through July.

"We hope to be able to resume travel in the autumn but a decision will be made later on," Detur said in a statement.

In Sousse, where tourism provides 20,000 jobs, the number of tourists on the beaches had noticeably dropped but local people with businesses along the palm-fringed boardwalk were putting on a brave face.

"We're still waiting for the full high season for our commerce to take off," said local craftsman Samir Ajili.

Armed tourism police were making the rounds near the city's all-inclusive resort hotels. But some said it was too little, too late.

"If Tunisia's tourism is affected, it is not our fault," said French tourist Yann as he left.

"We came even after the Bardo attack. But the authorities should have better protected the tourists here."

Reuters

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