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Tunisia Mounts Charm Offensive to Save Battered Tourism Sector

  • Reuters

FILE - Tunisian shopkeeper Aghmi Bubaker speaks with Reuters journalists at his shop in Sousse, Tunisia, June 30, 2015.

FILE - Tunisian shopkeeper Aghmi Bubaker speaks with Reuters journalists at his shop in Sousse, Tunisia, June 30, 2015.

Slim Zghal's three beach hotels in Tunisia had their best month ever in June last year. Now, two of them are closed and the other one is less than a third full, as tourists are scared off by concerns over security.

"With 30 percent you can't make any money. But if running hotels is your dream, it's not only about the money," he told Reuters at the ITB travel fair in Berlin on Thursday.

Three major militant attacks last year, including two on foreign visitors, as well as travel warnings by countries including Britain, have battered the tourism industry which accounts for 7-8 percent of Tunisia's economy.

The stakes are very high for the North African country, which witnessed the first of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 and is moving towards democracy while facing a growing threat from Islamic State.

FILE - Children play at a beach in Hammamet, Tunisia, Feb. 19, 2013.

FILE - Children play at a beach in Hammamet, Tunisia, Feb. 19, 2013.

At the world's biggest travel fair, it set out to deliver a upbeat message to reporters and travelers.

"Tunisia is safe," Tourism Minister Selma Elloumi Rekik said. "Of course there are some places that are dangerous. But there are areas that are 100 percent safe."

The country has taken a number of security measures since last summer, including hiring a security consultant to draw up a handbook for tourism-related operations such as hotels and museums, which were the focus of its news conference at the fair.

It is cooperating more closely with Britain, France and Germany since a gunman killed 38 people, mostly Britons, in the beach resort of Sousse in June.

But highlighting the uphill battle for the Tunisian tourist industry, the Foreign Office in London says: "The threat from terrorism in Tunisia is high. Further attacks remain highly likely, including against foreigners." It advises against all but essential travel to the country.

Zghal, 52, has doubled the number of security guards in his hotel in Monastir, the only one of his three beach hotels that is still open, to 30 since the Sousse attack.

Alongside police, they patrol the hotel Royal Thalassa Monastir and the beach in uniform and plain clothes, guide guests through metal detectors at the hotel's only entrance and monitor security camera footage around the clock.

The government has been helping the tourism sector pay for the cost of tighter security, for instance by paying social security contributions for employees, and banks are giving hotels more time to pay back their loans. But with guests staying away, hotels are still booking losses.

"I have other projects, so it's not so bad. But for someone who has only hotels it would be very difficult," said Zghal.

The number of tourist arrivals in Tunisia dropped 25 percent to 5.4 million last year, the Tourism Ministry's website showed.

That contributed to a slowdown in economic growth to 0.8 percent from 2.3 percent a year earlier.

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