Tunisia attack: Tourism industry reels again

The June 26 beachfront attack at Sousse has left at least 27 people dead, including foreigners.

Story highlights

The deadly attack in Sousse comes just months after gunmen killed 23 at a Tunis museum

An analyst says the attack will probably cause a "massive reduction" in tourism in Tunisia

The country has been struggling to rebuild its tourism industry since the 2011 Arab Spring

CNN  — 

The deadly attack at a popular seaside resort in Tunisia has again derailed the fragile recovery of the country’s tourism industry after the Arab Spring in 2011.

Only just recovering from the impact of the uprisings four years ago, Tunisia had once again emerged as a winter sun draw for tens of thousands of travelers.

But the beachfront shootings at Sousse may drive its tourism industry back into the shadows.

“One of the main things you achieve when you hit tourist industries in countries like this that really depend upon tourism is that you are hitting the economy,” said Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchins from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London.

Meleagrou-Hitchins said the Tunisia attack would probably lead to a “massive reduction” in tourism.

“We have people relaxing on the beach on their holidays being murdered – that is not going to help the attempts by the Tunisian tourist industry to get people to come to the country. This can probably be seen as an attempt to destabilize the economy as well as the wider political situation in Tunisia,” he said.

Global market research firm Euromonitor International said tourism was of “vital importance” for Tunisia and had been growing.

“This growth however is highly dependent on the safety and stability in Tunisia. The recent outbursts of violence represent major threat for the country, which can escalate the political instability and security issues in this destination and ultimately keep travelers from visiting the country short to medium term,” senior travel analyst Nadejda Popova said.

“That said, there is an internal commitment to boosting the industry and therefore the authorities are likely to react and do whatever is possible to avoid any further issues,” she said.

Museum attack

The deadly attack at Sousse comes just three months after a terror attack in the capital Tunis, which left 23 dead.

Sousse itself has had previous scares. In October 2013, a suicide bomber blew himself up near a hotel in the resort city, but killed only himself.

Ireland’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that one of its citizens had died in the Sousse attack.

“In light of this incident we are changing our travel advice for Tunisia to ‘exercise extreme caution,’” Foreign Minister Charles Flanagan said.

“Irish citizens in Tunisia should remain extremely vigilant and follow the instructions of the police, tour operators, and their hotel staff. As this is a very fluid and fast moving situation our travel advice will be kept under review and we would urge those intending to travel to Tunisia to check the advice before traveling on www.dfa.ie/travel.”

Britain’s Foreign Office (FCO) also updated its travel advice after the latest attack.

“Gunmen attacked the Imperial Hotel and Hotel Club Riu Bellevue at Port El Kantaoui, near Sousse, earlier today. A number of people have been killed and injured. A British Embassy crisis team is on its way to the area,” it said.

“Some attackers may still be at large. Any British nationals in these hotels or nearby should remain indoors, and contact their tour operator and the Foreign Office.”

But other long-standing advice was unchanged at the time of writing: “424,707 British nationals visited Tunisia in 2014. Most British tourists stay in the coastal resorts and most visits are trouble free,” it said.

As well as guidance to avoid travel to certain areas, it warns: “There is a high threat from terrorism, including kidnapping. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners.”

On its page for Tunisia, the U.S. State Department says that terrorism is a “significant concern.”

“Most attacks by these terrorist organizations have targeted Tunisian security forces and government installations but attacks in tourist areas remain a possibility. The U.S. Embassy recommends that U.S. citizens in Tunisia continue to maintain a high level of vigilance,” it says.

Travel operators impacted

On its website, Hotel Riu Imperial Marhaba – targeted in Sousse – is described as an all-inclusive hotel with views of Port El Kantaoui. It contains indoor and outdoor pools, including one for children, as well as buffet-style and theme restaurants.

The Spanish-based parent company that runs the hotel issued a statement confirming it had been affected by the attack.

“We are collecting all the information about the incident, and are in permanent contact with the authorities in order to have full information about what happened. We would like to extend our sincere condolences to the victims and their relatives,” the RIU Hotel group said.

Travel groups cancel flights after attack

Thomson and First Choice, a UK-based travel operator that carries thousands of vacationers on package trips to Tunisia, offers the hotel – 3km (1.8 miles) from Port El Kantaoui – as an accommodation option.

It said it was aware of the attack but did not confirm whether any of its customers had been impacted.

“We are working closely with our teams in Tunisia and the relevant authorities to determine exactly what has happened and provide assistance to those affected,” the company said in a statement. “More information will be released as it becomes available.”

Fellow UK travel operator Thomas Cook also offers accommodation at the Hotel Riu Imperial Marhaba.

” At this time, details are not clear as to which property(ies) have been affected, with conflicting news reports. We are currently gathering information and will provide an update as soon as possible. Our teams on the ground are offering every support to our customers and their families in the area,” it said. “We will continue to monitor the situation, working closely with the FCO and local authorities.”

Tunisia tourism has been on the rebound

Tunisia’s largely unsullied reputation as a safe north African destination for Europeans seeking low coast beach breaks had been clawing back some of the popularity it enjoyed before 2011.

In 2010, the country welcomed 6.9 million tourists to its beach resorts and numerous historic sites.

In 2011, the year in which an uprising ousted longtime President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali – an event credited with triggering the Arab Spring – that number fell below 4.8 million.

With calm restored in recent years – despite security concerns from neighboring Libya and ongoing political tensions – those numbers have been on the rise, helped by costly advertising campaigns.

Recently reported statistics put visitor numbers still 10% lower than their pre-2011 levels, but numbers had been expected to rise again – particularly with a new “Star Wars” film renewing interest in the country’s role as a key location in the original movies.

In 2013, Tunisia's tourism minister said 20% of the country's population relied on the tourism industry.

In its annual Travel and Tourism Economic Impact report, the World Travel and Tourism Council had forecast visitor arrivals to reach 6,495,000 in 2015.

The WTTC said travel and tourism had directly contributed 7.4% of GDP (U.S.$3 billion) in 2014, with its broader impact responsible for 15.2% of GDP.

Commenting after the June 26 attacks, WTTC President David Scowsill said: “It is important that travel organizations and travelers continue to support Tunisia, whilst the government takes appropriate measures on security.”

Analysis: Terror attack undercuts Arab Spring’s best prospect