Terrorism and tourism in Tunisia

(The Young Arab) Tunisia's recent history shows the power of globalised violence to inspire and inflate the actions of an individual at the expense of the vast majority. For a country that is still coming to terms with its post-revolutionary politics, it remains in the crosshairs of IS and its tourist sector is in urgent need of genuine international support.

The first killer

In April 2002 a suicide attacker detonated a huge explosion outside a synagogue on the southern Tunisian island of Djerba, killing 14 German tourists, four Tunisians and a French tourist. The synagogue was gifted to Jews who had fled Roman persecution by the Berbers in 6th century BC, and as a marker of tolerance and generosity towards others it was an obvious al-Qaeda target. Despite the Bin Laden inspired movement promising 'more to come', Tunisia was largely quiet for almost the next decade.

Then the actions of another individual - Mohamed Bouazizi - sparked the fires of revolution and upheaval across the region. His self-immolation and death in 2011 triggered Tunisia's revolution that saw the end of Ben Ali's 23 years in power. The revolution did not however provide an instant panacea to the country's problems, nor did it immunise it against the global appeal born out of the rise of IS.

Tunisia is reported to have provided the single largest number of foreign fighters who have rallied under the black flag in Syria and Iraq. Discontent among many young, unemployed Tunisians is often cited as one of the reasons behind this, and IS has every reason to want to maintain this. Another arguably more powerful factor is the disintegration of the Libyan state and the subsequent civil conflict and chaos that emerged to Tunisia's east. Weapons, safe spaces to train and porous borders combine into a potent mix for a trans-national 'Caliphate' interested in expansion.

The second and third killers

Despite the huge shift in Tunisian politics, tourism - one of its most important sectors - has endured remarkably well, with visitor numbers continuing to climb following the events of 2011. Tunisia's appeal is obvious; pristine Mediterranean beaches, good weather, welcoming hoteliers, delicious food and iconic Roman ruins, all just a short flight away from Europe. With other parts of the Middle East becoming off-limits for tourists, Tunisia stood to gain with its largely peaceful transition and good infrastructure for tourism already in place. The sector represented 7% of the country's GDP, and its associated industries push that figure up to over 20%. Tourism was then critically important, showing the potential for significant growth.

What's missing, certainly from the public domain or the mindset of senior Tunisian officials, is a sense of what exactly they have to do to get protection levels to 'adequate'

Yet high hopes for development were suddenly sidetracked when two gunmen entered the Bado Museum in Tunison a Wednesday at midday in March 2015. They spent half an hour killing tourists largely from a nearby cruise ship - 22 in total from 10 countries - before police managed to shoot them dead. Today a ceramic memorial to the 22 marks the entrance to a museum that now has armed police, anti-tank blocks and magnetic scanners for the tourists to pass through before entering. But the cruise ships have not returned, and when I visited in April the majority of people there were young Tunisian journalism students asking foreign visitors why they had come here despite the attacks.

The fourth killer

While the Bado attacks highlighted the seriousness of the problem Tunisia faced, the country did not have the time to take preventative measures before what happened at the beach resort of Sousse some three months later. There, a gunmen entered the Imperial Marhaba Hotel from the beach and in what the Hotel Manager told me was the space of 20 minutes, killed the majority of the 38 people who died that day. The hours it took the authorities to finally kill the attacker highlighted shortcomings within Tunisia's security forces and when British FCO travel advice warned against all but essential travel, the British tourist share – which was expected to reach over half a million tourists that year – was put on hold, which is where it remains today.

The West is fighting a war against IS, but in not doing enough to support a key part of the Tunisian economy, they are allowing IS recruitment a more fertile ground in which to operate

Following the actions of these four killers, tourism has nose divided somewhat but the Tunisian authorities are confident that the measures they've taken can reverse this. Currently, numbers are steady at over five million annually, and the government can speak of its investment in large numbers of new police and members of the armed forces, in addition to work along its international borders and frank conversations with tourism providers when it comes to the security of each site. Yet obvious gaps remain and a zero risk scenario is unrealistic.

The Tunisian authorities admit they cannot fight this fight by themselves and many tourism officials have expressed frustration over the continued blanket FCO ban on all but essential travel. The ban itself states that "we do not believe the mitigation measures in place provide adequate protection for British tourists in Tunisia at the present time". 

British travel advice is sensibly non-politicised but rather the product of shared analysis and information from across the relevant government departments. What's missing, certainly from the public domain or the mindset of senior Tunisian officials, is a sense of what exactly they have to do to get protection levels to 'adequate' or a clear sense as to why the French authorities among others believe it is safe for their citizens to travel.

There is a paradox at play here: the West is fighting a war against IS, but in not doing enough to support a key part of the Tunisian economy, they are allowing IS recruitment a more fertile ground in which to operate. Much is said in Britain about the importance of soft power; leadership in securing the tourist sector in Tunisia is both bad for IS and good for British travelers, but most importantly it increases the odds of a successful and prosperous future for the country.


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