Wednesday 18 July 2018

Thousands of holidaymakers are returning to Tunisia – but is it safe?

Travel & terrorism

An empty beach in Tunisia. Photo: Getty
An empty beach in Tunisia. Photo: Getty

Hugh Morris

Thomas Cook, one of Europe’s biggest tour operators, has resumed holidays to Tunisia for the first time since a terrorist attack near Sousse left 38 dead.

The attack in June 2015 prompted Ireland's Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the UK Foreign Office (FCO) to advise against essential travel to the north African country, all but removing British and Irish tourists from the beach resorts that dot its Mediterranean coast.

But this week, more than six months after the FCO lifted its ban, Thomas Cook has returned, beginning with flights to Enfidha from Birmingham, Manchester and London Gatwick. Services from Glasgow, Newcastle and Stansted will follow in the spring.

The DFA has downgraded its warnings to Irish citizens from 'avoid non-essential travel' to advising a 'high degree of caution' in recent times. - although no Irish tour operators are currently believed to be considering a return this year.

A spokesperson for Thomas Cook said the first trips from the UK were fully booked, with all-inclusive seven-night holidays starting from just £306/€345pp. Customers can currently choose from 10 hotels in the region, rising to 14 in the summer.

However, Thomas Cook expects only a quarter of the volume of holidaymakers it welcomed in 2014, before the 2015 terror attacks in Sousse and Tunis.

Holidaymakers view flowers left on Marhaba beach where 38 people were killed in a terrorist attack in June 2015 in Sousse, Tunisia
Holidaymakers view flowers left on Marhaba beach where 38 people were killed in a terrorist attack in June 2015 in Sousse, Tunisia

“We’re starting in just a few resorts, mainly near Hammamet where we are confident we can offer the high quality our customers expect,” said Carol MacKenzie, head of customer welfare.

“Since Tunisia closed to British holidaymakers three years ago, we’ve had lots of customers asking us when the country will be back on sale. It attracts lots of loyal visitors.”

Tour operator Tui, Europe’s largest, will resume trips from the UK to Tunisia in May.

Have Tunisian resorts improved security?

“[Since the Sousse attack] the Tunisian government has worked to improve its security and the way its police and security teams can respond to terrorist incidents,” MacKenzie said.

“It is this work which meant that the UK government were able to announce that they are not satisfied that British travellers can return to the country.”

Zohra Driss, owner of the Imperial Merhaba Hotel poses outside the venue in Port el-Kantaoui, on the outskirts of Sousse south of the capital Tunis on April 21, 2017. Photo: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
Zohra Driss, owner of the Imperial Merhaba Hotel poses outside the venue in Port el-Kantaoui, on the outskirts of Sousse south of the capital Tunis on April 21, 2017. Photo: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

The FCO says that Tunisian security forces, which came under criticism in the wake of the attack for responding too slowly, have “improved and are better prepared to tackle terrorist threats”.

"The Tunisian government has improved security in major cities and tourist resorts," adds the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs. "This notwithstanding, terrorists are still very likely to try to carry out further attacks in Tunisia."

MacKenzie said that when she visited last year she noticed an increased security presence on hotel beaches, and said hotels and police were working more closely.

Is all of Tunisia safe?

No – both the DFA and UK Foreign Office still advise against travel to much of southern and western Tunisia, especially where the country borders Libya.

The DFA advises against all travel to:

  • the Chaambi Mountain National Park area
  • within 30 km of the borders with Algeria and Libya
  • the town of Ben Guerdane and the immediate surrounding area
  • the militarized zone in Tatouine Governorate that lies south of, but does not include, the town of El Borma

It advises against all but essential travel to:

  • areas south of, and including, the towns of Nefta, Douz, Médenine, Zarzis
  • the governorate of Kasserine, including the town of Sbeitla (except the Chaambi Mountain National park area, where we advise against all travel).

The FCO that there is a heightened risk of terrorism against aviation, which is why additional security measures have been put in place restricting electronic devices on board.

A state of emergency remains in place in the country, imposed in 2015 and since extended a number of times. It was most recently extended last week.

"Any Irish citizens travelling to or residing in Tunisia should avoid all protests and demonstrations; minimise time spent in crowded areas, particularly those frequented by foreigners; and follow the advice of the Tunisian security authorities and your travel company if you have one," the DFA travel advice states.

"In addition, we recommend that you devise and/or review a personal security plan."

Has Tunisia's tourism industry been suffering?

Yes, especially in terms of British visitors, though other European countries have continued to offer flights and packages over the past two years.

Arrivals in the immediate aftermath of the attack fell heavily. Figures from the country’s Ministry of Tourism showed that in the first half of 2016, visitors were down 25pc to 4.3 million, crippling one of the nation’s biggest GDP contributors.

However, at the end of last year, the industry was showing signs of growth as French and German tourists returned.

The number of Algerian holidaymakers visiting also soared.

Foreign arrivals to the country rose by 23pc in 2017, compared with the previous year, with just under seven million tourists visiting.

Read more:

Hotel in Tunisia where 38 tourists were massacred reopens with a new name

Telegraph.co.uk

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