With Tunisia on high alert following the beachside massacre in Sousse, Sarah Freeman reports on how restoring tourism will be key to the area’s long-term recovery.
In the hours after 23 year old Seifeddine Rezgui turned a beach in the popular Tunisian resort of Sousse into a bloodbath, the exodus of tourists began.
Within 48 hours, more than 3,500 British holidaymakers had left the country early. Some said they feared a copycat attack, but most simply felt uncomfortable continuing as normal when a few minutes walk away the grim job of identifying the bodies continued.
Not everyone left. Latest figures estimate around half decided to stay put. Some claimed their decision was a show of defiance against Islamic extremism. Others put it more simply - they had paid for a fortnight in the sun and it would take more than an act of terror to get them packing their bags.
Last year tourism accounted for 15.1 per cent of Tunisia’s GDP, but for every Brit still drinking the local boukha there are now many others currently thinking about booking their summer holiday who will be looking elsewhere.
“We have analysed what happened following a number of terrorist attacks, from the killing of 62 tourists in Luxor in 1997 to the Bali bombing of 2002 and the July 7 attacks on London 10 years ago,” says Yeganeh Morakabati, an expert in risk and tourism based at Bournemouth University. “We looked at the impact on these destinations in terms of the number of people visiting and the amount of tourist spend and there is a difference. In London, the 7/7 bombings actually had no noticeable effect and the same was true in Spain following the Madrid train bombing in 2004.
“The reality is you can’t go to see Buckingham Palace, the British Museum or the Houses of Parliament anywhere else in the world apart from London and so whatever happens the tourists will come. However, if all you really want to do is lie on the beach then there are many different destinations to choose from. It probably took tourism in somewhere like Bali about two years to recover following the bombings which left more than 200 people dead.”
Last year, a report by the Association of British Travel Agents showed that most holidaymakers have short memories and while one-off incidents will have an immediate, short-term impact in terms of bookings, the majority of countries do tend to bounce back from a terror attack.
In fact, the research showed that it was only countries like Egypt, which has suffered from continued political unrest where visitor numbers have gone into long-term decline, with UK visitors falling by more than 18 per cent between 2010 and 2014.
“Clearly places which are highly developed in terms of mass tourism are much better placed to recover than an emerging resort which may be little known about apart from being the site of a tragedy,” says Morakabati. “The media inevitably has a role to play and how events are reported in the press and television can have an impact.
“If people are repeatedly shown graphic footage of bodies lying on a beach then that makes what happened very real. At least initially, with those images at the forefront of their mind, a significant number of people may be dissuaded from going to Tunisia.”
Prior to the events of last week, the Foreign Office had already warned that the threat of terrorism was high in Tunisia, but in the wake of the massacre that advice has now been updated.
A statement on the website now reads: “Further terrorist attacks are likely, including in tourist resorts, and by individuals unknown to the authorities, whose actions may be inspired by terrorist groups via social media. You should be especially vigilant at this time and follow the advice of Tunisian security authorities and your tour operator.” A little further down, the Foreign Office adds: “424,707 British nationals visited Tunisia in 2014. Most British tourists stay in the coastal resorts and most visits are trouble free”. However, that reassurance alone may not be enough to persuade the tourists to return.
“In a country like Egypt many people differentiate between the capital Cairo, which is seen as high risk and a resort like Sharm el-Sheikh, even though it has in the past been subject to a number of terrorist attacks,” says Dr Razaq Raj, principal lecturer at the School of Events, Tourism and Hospitality at Leeds Beckett University.
“However, Sousse was supposed to be one of those safe places and going forward it is vital to ensure that what happened on the beach is seen as a barbaric act, but one which is nothing to do with the destination itself. The Foreign Office is right in its advice, but had it decided to declare Sousse a no go area then that would have been disastrous for Tunisia.
“Whatever anyone does, the impact cant’ be completely mitigated, but we are now living in a borderless environment and we have to accept that these acts of terror can happen anywhere.”
Yesterday, the first of the C-17 military transport aircrafts landed in Brize Norton carrying the bodies of eight Britons killed on the sands of Sousse. At the same time discounted holidays and flights to Tunisia were already being snapped up by those apparently convinced by the old adage that lightning won’t strike twice. Or at least not for a while.
“The truth is that some people are attracted by risk,” says Morakabati. “For others it’s a mathematical equation. They weigh up whether the attractiveness of the destination and deal is higher than the chances of being caught in an attack. If it is, then they go.”
Last year the number of British tourists heading to Tunisia reached record levels. Out of the 6.5m visitors the country received last year, 435,000 were from this country and before last Friday it was on course for a further increase of 20 per cent by the end of this year.
“Of course there will be a negative impact on tourism in the short-term, but in Tunisia we don’t think like that,” says Moncef Battikh, head of promotion at the London base of the Tunisian National Tourist Office. “At the moment we are more concerned about the families of the dead and injured.
“They were our guests and in our culture, it is our duty to look after our visitors and make sure they are safe. That philosophy can be seen by the number of locals who acted as human shields during the attack and it is one that we will continue to live by.
“In the last few days we have been overwhelmed by support from all walks of life who have emailed us to pledge their support to Tunisia. With that kind of solidarity, we are confident that Sousse will be able to come back from this.
“There are 11 million people in Tunisia and all of them have been hurt by this attack. However, this is a very ancient country and over the centuries we have faced many, many hurdles, but we have always got over them and found ourselves stronger on the other side.”