Attack in Tunisia marked setback for nation and threat to industry

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Tourists from the Bardo Museum are evacuated in Tunis on March 18. Photo Credit: Hassene Dridi/AP

Last week’s deadly terror attack in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, marked a significant setback, not just for the country’s recovering tourism industry but for the progress being made in an Arab Spring country that was widely considered to have advanced the furthest down the path to democracy.

And beyond the borders of Tunisia, the fact that Islamic extremists expanded their sectarian violence to target tourists could have a profound effect on travel and tourism throughout Northern Africa, on Mediterranean cruising and on perceptions of travelers’ security in Muslim countries.

“The renewed effort to boost the [tourism] industry received a deadly blow yesterday,” said Alan Burricks, owner of Tunisia-based tour operator Africa 2 Africa. “Tunisians are people who know what freedom and progress look like. Their patient resolve, as seen over the last four years, will see them through. … The impact will be great, but we need tourists to show resolve that they will not be intimidated.”

It was impossible last week to know if tourist resolve would in fact be shaken by the attack, since it was far too early for operators, cruise lines and travel retailers to ascertain the attack’s impact on sales and cancellations.

Burricks spoke March 19, one day after the attack at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis left at least 23 people dead, including 20 foreign tourists.

Also, on March 19, the Associated Press reported that the Islamic State, popularly known as ISIS or ISIL, claimed responsibility for the museum attack. Tunisia President Beji Caid Essebsi vowed to bolster security measures in the wake of the violence.

The travel and tourism sector contributed 15% to Tunisia’s GDP in 2013, and was forecasted to rise by 3.5% in 2014, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Burricks said: “Most people whom I spoke to yesterday and today were discouraged by the event and sad that people died as a result of an ideology. One of our guides would have been at the Bardo Museum but decided to take the group to the Unesco site of Carthage first and then to the Bardo Museum. He is still suffering from near-miss syndrome. His friend, a bus driver, was shot in the leg.”

Tunisia is widely considered the spark that ignited the Arab Spring, a wave of revolutionary movements that swept across the Arab world beginning in late 2010 and that would see the toppling of the former governments of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

Leslie Overton, managing director of New York-based Absolute Travel, who visited the country in February, said, “Tunisia led the Arab Spring and has been the success story of that movement. For that to be undone by extremists has got to be very difficult for them.”

Absolute Travel had one client in Tunis on March 18, and Overton said that he was safe and remained at a distance from the area of the attack.

Other operators reported that they were monitoring the situation in Tunisia, as well. The Globus family of brands didn’t have any customers in Tunisia when the attack occurred, but the company’s Cosmos brand had a Tunisian Adventure itinerary slated to begin March 22 that was scheduled to go forward as planned.

“Our first step in a situation like this is to get a thorough assessment of the situation from our operations in the area to determine if there’s an ongoing need for alterations or adjustments to our operations,’’ Steve Born, Globus' senior vice president of marketing, said March 19. “In this case, they’ve determined there’s not a need for alterations.”  

The Tunisian Adventure itinerary does not include a visit to Bardo Museum.

Whether the attack was intended to be a direct assault on Tunisia’s tourism economy or was meant to undermine its overall security and stability will likely become more clear in the coming days and weeks.

The Bardo Museum is adjacent to the Parliament building in Tunis, and Tunisian officials on March 18 speculated that the attackers might have originally sought to target the Parliament and then switched gears to the adjacent museum, according to reports in the New York Times and other news media.

The foreign tourists killed in the attack included three Italians, three Japanese, two French, two Colombians, two Polish, two Spaniards, a Belgian and a British national.

The travel and tourism sector contributed 15% to Tunisia’s GDP in 2013, and was forecasted to rise by 3.5% in 2014, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

“Sadly, the murderous actions of the people behind this devastating attack will have far-reaching and profoundly damaging effects on democratic Tunisia and its faltering economy,” said MSC Cruises Executive Chairman Pierfrancesco Vago.

The MSC Splendida and Costa Fascinosa had passengers in Tunis at the time of the attack. MSC Cruises said March 19 that 12 guests of the MSC Splendida died in the terror attack and 13 were injured. Costa said five passengers from the Fascinosa were killed and eight were injured.

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