Last week, a record 12,000 vacationers were registered in resorts and hotels in the Tunisian coastal city of Sousse. But after a lone gunman killed 38 tourists at the Imperial Marhaba Hotel June 26, visitors hurriedly packed their suitcases and checked out of their rooms.
By Monday, 6,000 of them had checked out. What was supposed to have been a banner year for the tourism industry has turned into a nightmare that could threaten the entire economy.
Travel officials report that the number of European flights serving Tunisia have dropped in half, and those planes that still arrive are nearly empty.
“There have been thousands of cancellations of flights or no-shows, mostly from the U.K.,” said Sami Tounsi, a spokesman for the Tunisian National Tourist Office in London.
Tourist minister Selma Elloumi Rekik says Tunisia stands to lose about $515 million in tourism income this year, and this is enough to topple an economy still trying to recover after four years of political unrest.
Hospitality is economic mainstay
European tourists have always been attracted to Tunisia’s climate and historic attractions.
Sousse, once a Phoenician colony, is especially popular for its first-class hotels, white sand beaches and historic sites including early Christian catacombs and a medieval citadel.
In 2010, nearly 7 million tourists visited the country, double the figures seen in the 1990s.
The 2011 Jasmine Uprising brought a surge in religious hardliners, who assaulted unveiled women and attacked art galleries, theaters and even a television station for shows they deemed to be un-Islamic, and in September 2011, the U.S. Embassy. That year, tourism dropped significantly, but in years since, it had begun to rally.
A view of the 8th Century Ribat, a religious fortress in the old center of Sousse.
In 2014 more than 6 million tourists traveled to Tunisia, 424,000 of them British. This year was supposed to be a banner year for Tunisia’s hospitality industry.
The World Travel & Tourism Council predicted numbers the country hadn’t seen since before the revolution. National Geographic named the capital Tunis among its “Best Trips 2015.”
Tourism has always been a mainstay of the country’s economy, said Sami Tounsi, a spokesman for the Tunisian National Tourist Office in London.
“Tourism represents fifteen percent of the GDP,” he said.“That amounted to about $1.65 billion in revenue in 2014, representing the second largest source of hard currency in Tunisia and about half of the entire external trade balance.”
About 400,000 Tunisians are directly employed in the tourism business – hotels, airlines and other passenger transport services.
“And two million are indirectly involved in tourism out of a total population of eleven million,” Tounsi said.
While some resorts in Tunisia are locally owned, many are run jointly or independently by big European hotel chains, which will also feel the pinch.Spain’s RIU, Iberostar and Vincci collectively operate 20 resort hotels in Tunisia.
RIU, which manages the Imperial Marhaba where last week’s attack took place, took in more than $1.7 million in revenue from Tunisia in 2014.
Now, says Tounsi, Tunisia must “reorder its house” before tourists will want to return.
But that could take time, said Tunisian journalist Zainab Marzouk.
Tunisians shout slogans to demand tighter security within the country during a rally in front of the National Constituents Assembly in Bardo district in Tunis, May 10, 2013.
“The government has declared after Bardo Attack on March that we are in a war against terrorism,” she said in an email interview with VOA. “At that time, the Prime Minister announced a set of security measures to be implemented.”
Tunisian authorities arrested a group of suspected terrorists from a cell linked to the Sousse attackers, said Marzouk, and is cracking down on unlicensed mosques.
“The Prime Minister is offering undisclosed financial rewards for anyone providing information related to the attack,” she said.
Too little, too late?
Tunisia’s president Beji Caid Essebsi told French radio Tuesday security measures will include creating an armed tourist police force, calling up military reservists and strengthening Tunisia’s border with Libya. Tunisia claims Rezgui trained in the same Libyan jihadist camp as the Bardo attackers.
The government deployed about 1,000 troops to guard the country’s beaches, but with 800 miles of coastline to cover, the task could prove daunting.
“Security analysts criticize the government for lacking a clear security strategy and not keeping its pledge to improve security especially after Bardo,” Marzouk said.
As for the tourism industry in her country, Marzouk says it has been dealt “an irrevocable blow.”
Tunisians, she said, are feeling shock, despair and hopelessness, knowing that an already rough economy will now grow even rougher.