Simon Calder: Ordinary people will pay the price for the tourists' flight

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As the insurrection in Tunisia intensified, the response of Britain's travel industry looked to be in disarray.

The biggest tour operator to the North African nation, Thomas Cook, dispatched six aircraft from Manchester and Gatwick to the main holiday airport, Monastir.

They arrived empty to evacuate all 1,800 clients in Tunisia, who will receive credit to compensate for their curtailed trips. But TUI, which has 1,500 customers there on Thomson and First Choice holidays, said it would allow them to stay in the country and return on their intended flights. The company sent a jet from Manchester to Monastir for anyone who wanted to return, but a spokeswoman said "only a tiny percentage" had taken up the offer.

The Foreign Office minister, Jeremy Browne, said: "We are not at the moment recommending that everyone leave." He advised tourists in Tunisia to: "Take the right precautions and keep in close contact with us."

The trigger for the Thomas Cook move was the Foreign Office hardening its advice to warn against "all but essential travel" to Tunisia. This state of alert is regarded as the signal for holiday companies to cease outbound flights and to make plans for repatriating customers. It also has the effect of invalidating standard travel insurance policies, except for people who are already in the country.

The next wave of departures for the Tunisian resorts is due tomorrow, but both Thomas Cook and TUI have cancelled all their departures to Tunisia.

The cancellation of thousands of holidays will hit many Tunisians working in tourism, from hotel waiters to souk vendors. But what will worry the authorities much more is the potential loss of bookings. The tourism prospects for Tunisia in 2011 had looked rosy. The country was one of the few beneficiaries of changes to Air Passenger Duty; British holidaymakers flying out to the resorts of Hammamet, Sousse and Djerba pay only £12, compared with five times as much for Egypt.

The rising price of aviation fuel has intensified its price advantage, since it is a much shorter flight than to Turkey. While mid-January is low season, this weekend is traditionally the busiest of the year for British travellers booking their summer holiday. However blue the skies and sea in the brochures may look, a country where police fire tear gas and bullets on the streets is unlikely to appeal.

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