Tunisia tourism: Will holidaymakers ever return?

Simon Calder: The man who pays his way

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The Independent Travel

Access all areas for terrorists in Tunisia?

The chain of despair that begins with Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia has acquired a new link: Tunisia. As you know, the Foreign Office added the nation to its no-go list after the murder of 30 British holidaymakers and eight others in the resort of Sousse last month. That followed the killing of 22 people at the Bardo Museum in Tunis in March.

The UK government is unconvinced that the Tunisian authorities can prevent a repeat, concluding "a further terrorist attack is highly likely". Even worse for a country in which hundreds of thousands of people rely on the tourist industry is the bleak assessment by the Australian government that terrorists can effectively access all areas: "Both of these attacks were conducted by individuals who were unknown to authorities and using unsophisticated weapons. The nature of these attacks makes it more difficult for authorities to monitor attack planning and disrupt attacks."

Britain's warning against travel to the North African nation triggered an airlift for several thousand UK holidaymakers, who were taken from beachside hotels to the airport with a heavily armed escort – an image that reinforced the notion of Tunisia's demise as a tourist spot.

Jet2, one of the leading operators to the country, has already announced that it has dropped Tunisia from its summer 2016 programmes. And Australian travellers were this week warned to avoid areas "known to be frequented by foreigners such as, but not limited to, Western diplomatic missions, oil facilities, residential areas, hotels, clubs, restaurants, bars, schools, market places, places of worship, outdoor recreation events and tourist areas."

That doesn't leave much scope for a holiday.

Country or commodity?

Tunisia has a long, leaky frontier with a lawless, lethal failed state: Libya, another nation on the Foreign Office no-go list. So, the government in Tunis has much to do in order to persuade the West that it can protect visitors. But when the country makes it back to the"safe" list (a relative term), can it get back the half-million or so Brits who would ordinarily have visited this year?

In the long term, yes – but it may take decades rather than years, as in the case of the former Yugoslavia. In 1990, a million British holidaymakers travelled to the country – almost all of them to resorts on the coast of Croatia, one of the Yugoslav republics. This year, perhaps half a million Brits will visit Croatia. It has moved sharply upmarket from the "£99 for a week" deals on which Yugotours built its business, and ironically the country is enjoying more popularity this summer because it is regarded as safe relative to other Mediterranean nations.

Egypt, itself hit repeatedly by terror attacks aimed at tourists, has shown that tourism can be boosted by cutting hotel rates and offering subsidies to airlines. While Tunisia also has a rich culture, and much to offer upmarket tourists, it may be tempted to focus on sun, sand and sea to try to repair the economic devastation caused by the Sousse atrocity. But that makes a destination more a commodity than a country. Travel-industry guru Neil Taylor says such a strategy may not even work: "There is no point in charging nonsense prices. Safety is the only issue, not cost. So, drastically reducing prices will not bring sudden volume."

Instead, Taylor says Tunisia must set up large-scale "educationals" – laying on free trips for the UK travel industry to show how the country is calm, welcoming and rewarding. "The Hong Kong Tourist Board showed how effective they can be after the Sars disaster 12 years ago," he said. "Taking two mass educationals quickly got positive coverage and renewed bookings."

Break from the beach

"Security has obviously got to be addressed, and very, very visibly," says Lyn Hughes, editor-in-chief of Wanderlust magazine. But, she adds, Tunisia should realise its untapped potential for holidays offering adventure in the broadest sense of the word – such as cycling, trekking, riding, photography and bird-watching.

"The average adventure/cultural/explorer traveller spends more. The money goes further, and benefits extend into communities that are missing out on the mass tourism on the coast. It can create meaningful jobs for the whole year, not just summer, and hence keep communities alive."

The advice ties in with a move that I first urged the Tunisians to consider in the peaceful days after the overthrow of the last dictator in 2011: let the no-frills airlines in. At the time, I was told that Tunisair, the national carrier, needed time to restructure and face new competition before the likes of easyJet and Ryanair were invited in. Yet one reason that Morocco has thrived is its enlightened "open skies" policy, inviting any airline to fly in. Sure, some of the passengers are shoestring travellers, but many of those I meet on cheap flights to Marrakech are upmarket travellers. When they touch down in North Africa, they spend what they save on the air fare to the considerable benefit of the host nation.