After Islamist attacks, Tunisia's tourism struggles

SOUSSE, Tunisia (Reuters) - A year after 39 mostly British holidaymakers were gunned down on a beach in Sousse, Tunisia’s tourist industry is still struggling to recover from the attack and an earlier Islamic State raid on a museum in Tunis.

Tourists relax on the beach of El Ksar hotel in Sousse, Tunisia June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

The Imperial Marhaba hotel attacked by Saifeddine Rezgui remains closed, and other hotels have also shut down as British tour groups, once among the resort’s main visitors, stay away.

Tourism accounts for 8 percent of Tunisia’s gross domestic product, provides thousands of jobs and is a key source of foreign currency. Lost revenues -- down 35 percent last year, at $1.5 billion -- helped push the dinar currency to historic lows against the dollar and euro this month.

At the shuttered Marhaba, where Rezgui worked his way through the beach to the pool and lobby, killing as he went, bullet holes still mark the outer walls.

On a recent day only three tourists were lounging on its beach, where a year ago visitors laid flowers and messages on the sand in memory of those who died on June 26, 2015.

“We think we will re-open next year,” said hotel manager Mehrez Saadi. “For now we start by changing the name from the Imperial Marhaba to Kantaoui Bay.”

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Reviving a tourist industry also hit by the deaths of 21 foreign visitors in another attack by Islamic State gunmen on the Bardo national museum in the capital may take more than a change of hotel names.

Tourist arrivals fell to 5.5 million last year, the lowest in decades, after several European tour companies and cruise operators suspended operations, and numbers this year are expected to be similar.

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In 2014, Tunisia had attracted 760,000 holidaymakers from France, 425,000 Germans and 400,000 Britons, according to Euromonitor International.

Tourism Minister Salma Elloumi Rekik told Reuters she was urging European leaders to support Tunisia by lifting warnings against travel to the North African state. She said initial airline bookings for the summer looked positive.


Since the Bardo and Sousse attacks, Tunisian authorities have stepped up security at major tourism sites and hotels, to try to reassure tourism companies and foreign governments that visitors will be safe.

“There are lots of police around and armed officers in the tourism areas, so it seems very safe,” said one Russian tourist visiting the old market area in the capital.

But shopkeepers in the traditional medina in Tunis and the boardwalk along Sousse’s long stretch of beach where horse-drawn carts used to ferry visitors said they had yet to see any pick up in activity.

“The number of English tourists is down by 98 percent in Sousse,” said regional tourism representative Fouad el Ouad.

Only 9,000 visitors were currently in the resort, which has 90 hotels and 40,000 beds, he said, compared with around 40,000 in June of previous years.

More than half of those are Russians, targeted as a new market along with visitors from neighboring Algeria.

“We really hope the European tourists start to come back,” said a crafts seller in Sousse. “This season there are much less than the last one in terms of the number.

“Maybe we will see the Algerians start to come after Ramadan,” he added, referring to the Muslim Holy month, which finishes around July 5.

Additional reporting by Mohamed Haddad; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Catherine Evans