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By Sarah Young and Tarek Amara
LONDON/TUNIS, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Thomas Cook flew British tourists to Tunisia on Tuesday for the first time since an Islamist militant killed 30 Britons on one of the North African country’s beaches in 2015.
Tourism provides much needed jobs and foreign currency in Tunisia, but it has struggled since the attack in the resort of Sousse killed 39 holidaymakers and an earlier one at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis left 21 dead.
The sector accounts for about 8 percent of Tunisia’s gross domestic product and the attacks worsened an economic crisis started by the overthrow of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
The 2015 beach attack, which was claimed by Islamic State, prompted Britain to advise against all but essential travel to Tunisia, and major operators scrapped their tour holidays there.
However, Britain’s Foreign Office softened its advice last year and Thomas Cook said all three of its flights to Tunisia’s Enfidha airport were full. It will fly there three times a week, allowing Britons to join German, French and Belgian holidaymakers who have been going for the last two years.
TUI Group, the operator with whom the victims had travelled, said last month it too planned to offer holidays in Tunisia again, starting in May.
“It’s amazing to come back to Tunisia with my husband. I’ll go to Sousse and I’m not afraid,” a British tourist who have her name as Julia said. “Tunisia is obviously very secure. I want to spend a pleasant holiday again in the nice resort of Sousse.”
TUI said its decision to resume holidays to Tunisia was due to returning appetite. Tunisia’s tourism revenues rose by 15.7 percent to 150 million dinars ($63 million) in January versus the same period last year, central bank data showed.
“We opened the destination because demand was there, that’s very clear,” CEO Fritz Joussen said after the company announced its first quarter results.
Neji Ben Othman, the general director in the tourism ministry, told Reuters he hoped the return of Thomas Cook would encourage other Europeans to return too.
Last year, the number of tourists visiting Tunisia rose by some 23 percent as hotels filled beds with Russian and Algerian visitors, but operators say they spend less than Western European holidaymakers during their stay. (Reporting by Sarah Young and Tarek Amara; Writing by Sarah Young and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Alexander Smith)