Sousse looking rebound from Tunisian terror attacks

Six months after the attacks, Tunisia is trying to rebuild its broken tourist industry, says Eoghan Corry.

Sousse looking rebound from Tunisian terror attacks

SIX months ago on June 27, the report of a horrific gun attack on a holiday beach in Sousse, Tunisia was flashed across our screens.

Three Irish holidaymakers died, Lorna Carty from Robinstown, Co Meath, and husband and wife Martina and Laurence Hayes, from Westlodge, Athlone, Co Westmeath.

With them died, apparently, any interest among the Irish in spending their leisure time in Tunisia.

The two tour operators who operated a direct flight from Dublin to Monastir dropped their service.

Tunisia’s travel advisory was changed by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The new directive advised against all but essential travel, effectively putting it below Iran and above Iraq on the travel advisory table. Six months later, that is where Tunisia remains. Inaccessible by direct flight and a no-go area for the Irish.

The impact on Tunisia’s tourism industry is complex and uneven. Riadh Ben Amor’s Golf Residence Hotel in Port El Kantaoui was a favourite with the Irish.

This week he had four empty rooms for every one that is occupied. Normally he has 270 staff. Since September, 85 of these have lost their jobs.

“England, Ireland and Belgium left the market. The Netherlands were never big holidaymakers in winter.

“The French, Germans, Italians and Russians stayed, but not in as large numbers.

“Tunisia was the first country to go into tourism in the region, ahead of Egypt and Turkey.

“Tunisia has a long tradition of hospitality. We are very professional people. We have the training and the education and the welcoming spirit.

“We don’t have a tradition of terrorism but we have long borders, 1,000km with Algeria, 465km with Libya, and we have been working hard to secure these borders,” he says.

Riadh is hopeful. He currently operating with occupancy of 20% but expected it to be back at 60% by Christmas, short of former levels but better than other places affected by conflict.

“Thomas Cook are hoping to return on March 22 and we hope that will be the first step in getting the English and Irish markets back,” he says.

Tanya Airey of Sunway, the tour operator which sent tens of thousands of people to Tunisia since the 1980s, including the victims of the Sousse attack, says that the Department of Foreign Affairs will determine whether the programme will return, and she is aware of the sensibilities of those bereaved by the attacks.

“If the Department of Foreign Affairs changes the advisory and Irish people are happy with us returning there of course we will look at resuming the programme.

“It is a beautiful country with beautiful beaches, and a very loyal following. We have had people enquiring about getting there since the attacks.

“You can see why. It is a fantastic value destination.

“You could get a four-star hotel on the beach for the price of a two-star apartment in the Canaries with a longer walk to the shore.

“Tunisia was not really in the two-star apartment market. It offers luxury at a great price point.

“Since June people have realised that terrible things can happen elsewhere.”

The 15 hotels in four resorts that Sunway brochures are open and partially filled by other markets.

Germany’s travel advisory, unlike Ireland’s and England’s, does not advise its citizens to stay away.

But with occupancy down to 10% in some hotels, what was once a major industry is barely functioning.

It is estimated that half of the 400,000 employed by tourism in Tunisia are out of work after a series of body blows. The Jasmine revolution caused a drop of 55% in tourism. In the wake of the Bardo Museum attack, tourism industry experts predicted a decline by a further 7%.

That prediction was upped to 40%. At its peak, Ireland delivered 20,000 a year, and bigger markets have already gone.

Over 1.5m of the 7m tourists they used to get were high spending Libyans, another 1m Algerians, both markets have been devastated.

Next were the 1.3m French, 700,000 Germans, 355,000 Brits and 340,000 Italians, of which tourist traffic is down to less than 10% of previous levels.

In Houmt Souk the stallholders are having a bad time.

The tourists are scarce and the haggling is harder. Prices go up in the souk during a tourist shortage, not down.

Stallowner Ahmed Chaker says: “I have a family to feed. If I have a 100 people buying, it makes it easier than 10 people buying.”

La Ghriba synagogue claims to be one of the oldest in the world, founded by wandering Jews 1,500 years ago when their second temple was destroyed was destroyed in Jersualem.

They knew on which spot to build because this is exactly (they assure me) where a stone magically fell from heaven.

One of their torahs is 1,500 years old. It is kept in an unassuming wooden ark, while two old men chant in Hebrew in the adjoining room.

Around the town, a community of Jewish people come out to see us, curious and unphased by the busload of people who came.

The children follow us through the streets and it is reminiscent of the grainy photographs of Jewish life in Europe before WW2.

Tunisia needs something else to fall from heaven soon. A few more charter loads of tourists perhaps.

The shutdown of tourism from Ireland to Tunisia was not as predictable as some might think.

Irish holidaymakers have a well-earned reputation for resilience. When a bomb goes off anywhere in the world and tourists stop coming, the Irish are usually the first to turn up looking for a beach towel and a cold beer.

We tend to be first among nations to disregard the alarmists.

Perhaps it is the hand-down experience of the troubles in Northern Ireland, when we continued to attract 2m tourists a year as images of violence were flashed across the world’s media.

Perhaps it is a Celtic stoicism that passes through our veins since the days St Brendan turned left at the Faroe Islands.

Or just that Michael O’Leary has turned out holidays into a relentless hunt for the bargains.

After the Bali bombings in October 2002, one Irish tour operator was inundated with calls from people looking for the bargains.

As bigger markets, coach tours and corporate clients cancelled, the Irish arrive looking for knock-down prices.

When the flights and hotels empty in the autumn, tourism talking shops clear their throats.

Last month one of them landed in Tunisia, ‘Tourism and the Media’. Unwto secretary-general, Taleb Rifai, chose his words carefully not to offend anyone, but there was a themed suggestion by speaker after speaker, beyond the usual platitudes about safety and traditional hospitality, that whatever chance tourism had of recovery was shriveling up hourly under the onslaught of reportage by the 24-hour TV channels.

The excursions included the Bardo Museum, not as devoid of visitors as one might expect, and with the sort of security that you expect visiting a head of state.

Tourism minister Salma Elloumi Rekik spoke, as all his predecessors have since 2010, of domestic tourism and tourism from the Maghreb.

Rifai said Tunisia’s tourism sector “would overcome the current challenges and regain momentum”.

The applause was polite and firm, but the uncertainty was palpable.

Four days later an attack on Paris brought home the message. The shadow over Tunisia is not going away anytime soon.

So how risky is travel?

The statistics are reassuring. What kills Irish people abroad is the same as what kills them at home, drownings, road crashes, balcony falls, and, most fatal of all, the heart conditions that Irish people pack with them when they travel.

These combined will continue to cause 200 deaths a year among Irish people, as opposed to the three who died at the hands of more high-profile political assailants.

It doesn’t make the headlines, but the mode of transport that kills most people is the stairs, often in their home.

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