Tunisia’s 2015 season was marked by an unfortunate series of attacks targeting tourists at the Bardo Museum and the Imperial Marhaba, a Sousse beach-side resort. Such events, coupled with the neighbouring political and security crisis in Libya, caused a decrease in international tourism for the rest of the 2015 season and a slow recovery for 2016.
In response, the Tunisian government has launched a multi-pronged attempt to bring visitors back to the country. Working in coordination with tourism industry actors, local authorities have begun implementing extra security measures to guarantee the safety and well-being of their guests. Furthermore, it has reopened talks with the EU on an open skies agreement that promises to boost Tunisia’s appeal by lowering the cost of travel.
British tourism to the country – which once represented one of the largest markets for tour operating companies in Tunisia – has fallen sharply since 2015. Immediately following the attacks the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued a travel warning for Tunisia, advising against all but essential travel to the country’s tourist areas. Just 18,000 visitors arrived between January and November of 2016, compared to 425,000 over the same period in 2014, according to the National Office of Tunisian Tourism (Office National du Tourisme Tunisien, ONTT). As of April 2017 the warning was still in place; however, some indicators have been pointing towards a progressive lifting of the ban. The UK security team dispatched to Tunisia in the wake of the attacks to evaluate the Tunisian tourism industry’s security apparatus has been discussing a list of 48 elements the country will have to change overall in order to improve its national security.
In June 2016 Selma Elloumi Rekik, Minister of Tourism, said she had held meetings with the UK Foreign Office and was assured the ban would be reconsidered. The UK Foreign Office, in an April 2017 update to the travel ban, acknowledged “good cooperation from the Tunisian government, including putting in place additional security measures”, but said a “further terrorist attack is highly likely”.
As part of security-tightening efforts, the Ministries of the Interior and Tourism prepared a protocol requiring tourist establishments to comply with international safety standards. Those that did not would be forced to close or be subject to significant penalties. The government has been working with German authorities to revise the country’s security norms in hotels and tourist areas. “We are working with Germany on implementing a security guidebook for hotels and tourism circuits,” Mouna Mathlouthi, director of study and international cooperation of the ONTT, told OBG.
Under the terms of the protocol, institutions are required to equip themselves with metal detectors and surveillance cameras and train their staff. A total of 120 tourism inspectors were in hotels conducting control operations by June 2016, after receiving fresh training on safety issues, and approximately 100 armed personnel from the Ministry of the Interior were added to local police forces in tourist areas. Reinforced armed police units have also been set up close to tourist sites and neighbourhoods with major hotels, while brigades on horseback and quads patrol the country’s most frequented beaches in a bid to reassure beach-goers.
In the Tunisian south, where the proximity to the neighbouring Libyan conflict poses the most risk, additional checkpoints have been put into place near A total of 120 tourism inspectors were in hotels conducting control operations by June 2016, after receiving fresh training on safety issues most tourist circuits, and brigades typically follow tourist convoys into the desert to ensure their safety. In February 2016 Tunisian officials announced they had completed a 200-km barrier of trenches, sand banks and walls along the border with Libya.
In addition to reinforcing security in select areas, the Ministry of Tourism has been developing a training of trainers (ToT) programme with several European security agencies to build the capacity of security instructors in order to improve the quality of training received by security personnel. “Thanks to the ToT programme, a body of inspectors will be created and tasked with quality control and ensuring the guidelines on security are properly enforced,” Mathlouthi told OBG.
In December 2016 the Ministry of the Interior signed a counterterrorism cooperation agreement with its counterpart in the UK. As part of the ToT programme, a team of experts from the UK’s National Counter Terror Police Unit have been training Tunisian security officials on how to secure airports, hotels and resorts, with a focus on areas that constitute tourist attractions. Police experts from France and the UK have also been training Tunisian officers on how to respond to bomb threats and marauding attacks such as those that took place in 2015.
While progress is being made, actors in the tourism industry have identified certain areas that continue to require development, including the need for further training on CCTV monitoring. Additionally, certain actors have expressed concern over affordability and availability of good, qualified security staff. “Though the training programmes being developed are most certainly a positive step, qualified security personnel come at higher costs,” Selim Hizem, commercial director of the Hotel Concorde, told OBG.
It is not only the tourism industry that has suffered as a result of the recent security scares. The drop in visitor numbers has also heavily impacted the aviation sector, as around two-thirds of Tunisia’s air traffic is generated by tourist arrivals. However, through the implementation of a new open skies agreement with the EU, the government is hoping to turn this around, stimulating a return to growth in both sectors. At the end of 2015 negotiations were restarted to gradually liberalise air traffic between Tunisia and the bloc. Talks first began in 2011, but were suspended because of concerns about possible consequences that the entrance of low-cost airlines to the market would have on Tunisair, the national air carrier.
However, it is precisely the prospect of low-cost travel that is expected to entice holidaymakers back to Tunisia. The tourism industry relies mainly on seaside tourism and tour packages, which manage to attract customers at a moderate cost. Thus, the presence of low-cost carriers should help to secure revenue. It will also allow the country to better tap into the expected rise in global air passengers, which is due to more than double in size over the next two decades. The agreement is expected to be implemented in the first half of 2017.
The immediate actions taken by the government and the tourism industry to improve the security in hotels and major tourism sites following the 2015 attacks were without a doubt essential to minimise the negative impact on the sector and the economy as a whole. In addition to improving physical security, the steps that authorities have taken to implement training programmes and work with UK and German partners to ensure the provision of high-quality security services will do much to reassure source markets that Tunisia is a safe destination.
Moving forward, as the government continues to develop security and boost Tunisia’s appeal through the implementation of the open skies agreement, it is likely that confidence will be restored and tourists will return to this once-popular holiday destination.
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