Lifting of UK travel warning provides needed boost to Tunisian tourism
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.”