Friday, July 28, 2017

‘We didn’t expect the ban to be so long’

Independent UK

“Banning a destination gives a sign to the terrorists they are winning,” said Tarek Aouadi, UK director of the Tunisian National Tourist Office. He was speaking a year ago, which was 12 months after 30 Britons were murdered at a seaside resort in Sousse.

“Human lives have been lost and security must come first. But we didn’t expect it to be this long.”

More than two years after Seifeddine Rezgui gunned down sunbathers at the Imperial Marhaba Hotel, the British Government has finally eased its travel advice for Tunisia. The country is off the no-go list.

While German, French and Italian holidaymakers have been returning in increasing numbers to Tunisia, the British market is crucial to the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people. In 2014, close to half a million UK holidays travelled to the North African country; for the last two years, the number has been close to zero.

In practical terms, the change means travel insurance cover can be restored, and UK tour operators can organise holidays.

But luring people back to the Mediterranean beaches, desert landscapes and rich culture will take years rather than months.

Opinions on social media showed how difficult it will be to win over hearts and minds. Comments ranged from “Take your bullet proof vest for the beach” to “I loved Tunisia but afraid it's not for me anymore. Too risky.”

Images of the slaughter on the beach in Sousse and the subsequent evacuation of British holidaymakers will linger, and the new Foreign Office travel advice hardly paints a picture of tranquility: “The main terrorist threat is from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Libya-based extremists with links to Daesh (formerly referred to as ISIL),” it warns.

“Despite some improvements in border security, Tunisia has a porous border with Libya, where there’s a continuing conflict, an absence of security, and where Islamist terrorist groups operate.”

I anticipate that a few thousand people who love Tunisia and its people will return to the country over the next few months. Expect a surge of visits over Christmas and New Year, when it offers the prospect of winter sunshine at much lower prices than the Canary Islands.

One or more tour operators may dip a toe in Tunisian waters by February half-term, with a small-scale programme running through to Easter. By putting holidays on sale soon, they will be able to assess demand ahead of deciding what to offer for summer 2018.

Price will certainly play a part: bargain holidays are key to drawing people back to a country that has seen tragedies involving tourists, and as costs for Spain have soared there will be plenty of travellers seeking better value.

Enticing cruise lines back to Tunisia will take longer. Before the attack on the Bardo Museum in the capital in March 2015, Tunis was a very popular port of call. But cruise lines tend to be very conservative: for this year, many of them have cut Turkey from itineraries, even though the country does not appear on the no-go list.

After the shambolic response to the Sousse attack, the security authorities have upped their game. Tunisian special forces are now regarded as outstanding. But in a country with many returning Jihadists, good intelligence is essential — as well as good fortune to ensure that the terrorists do not win once more.

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