Lifting of UK travel warning provides needed boost to Tunisian tourism

Sunday 30/07/2017
Fuelling optimism. Foreign tourists walk in Sidi Bou Said, an attractive tourist destination near Tunis, in mid-July. (Reuters)

Tunis - The UK Foreign Office lifted its travel warning on most areas of Tunisia, including Tunis and the major tour­ist destinations, a move likely to draw British holidaymak­ers to the country and bring much-needed foreign currency into Tuni­sia’s economy.
The policy change comes two years after terrorist attacks at Tu­nis’s Bardo National Museum and the resort of Sousse killed dozens of British tourists, leading the UK gov­ernment to advise against “all but essential travel” to Tunisia.
In a statement July 26, the Foreign Office said the update was made due to “security improvements” by Tunisian authorities and the tour­ism industry.
The announcement was wel­comed in Tunisia, which saw its once booming tourism sector strug­gle to stay afloat after the 2015 inci­dents.
From January to September 2016, Tunisia hosted 4.3 million foreign travellers, down from 5.8 million during the same period in 2014. The decline was even more pronounced among Britons: Only 20,000 visited last year, a decline from 400,000 in previous years.
The drop in tourism, which ac­counted for 8% of the Tunisian economy, was devastating for industry workers. Dozens of ho­tels and restaurants downsized or closed, leaving hundreds of people unemployed in a sluggish economic environment.
The UK officials’ decision to lift the travel warning on much of the country will likely mark a signifi­cant change of course.
“It is a very important decision that opens new horizons for Tu­nisian tourism to come back again and a message to the world that Tu­nisia is now safe,” Tunisian Tour­ism Minister Salma Elloumi Rekik told Reuters.
The move is considered a credit to Tunisia’s security services, which have made progress in countering extremism and staving off militant activity near the Libyan and Alge­rian borders.
Since the attacks in 2015, Tunisia has taken extensive measures to enhance security, adding police and patrols to touristic areas, receiving counterterrorism training from the United Kingdom and constructing barriers on the border to deter ille­gal migration.
“Tourists can trust Tunisian se­curity officials to keep them safe,” said former Defence Ministry spokesman Mokhtar Ben Nasser. “Security now is stable, our forces are working hard, border areas are on high alert and there are serious efforts to counter terrorism.”
“The decision (travel warning on Tunisia) was wrong from the start,” he added, saying that Tunisia has a better safety record than many Eu­ropean countries.
No attacks targeting tourists have taken place since June 2015.
Matt Gordner, a Canadian lectur­er in politics and history at Tunis’s Mediterranean School of Business, said: “The conception that people have of (Tunisia as) a country with a security problem is very unfortu­nate for the country.”
“Tunisia is at a critical juncture in terms of its ability to consolidate its democratic transition, and the economy is one of the most press­ing issues for people who are criti­cal of this process,” said Gordner, who has been visiting the country since 2012 and living in it since 2015.
“I encourage friends and family to visit because Tunisia is a won­derful country in terms of its vast historical importance, the different areas — desert, sea, etc.”
With the British travel warning re­vised, many are likely to take his ad­vice. On June 26, the day the policy was announced, major British travel agency Thomas Cook released a statement saying it was looking for­ward to putting the “once-popular destination back on sale.”
The cancellation of package deals from major British travel agencies in 2015 was the impetus for the sudden drop in British visitors and forced many Tunisia tourism operators to shift their attention to the Russian, Libyan and Algerian markets.
Many Britons on social media said they were excited about the oppor­tunity to travel to Tunisia. “(I’ve) been going to Tunisia for 25 years and can’t wait to get back,” read one comment.
While Tunisian tourism workers were reassured by the news, they said they were unlikely to feel the effect until next year.
“I’m optimistic but only for next year’s season,” said Houssem Bet­taieb, the regional manager of a Tunisian tourism agency. “It is too late for this one because we have to prepare for a season six months in advance.”