Tunisia: ‘To Travel or Not to Travel’ – The Foreign Office Question (12.07.15)
Two weeks ago on 26 June 38 tourists, 30 of which were British, were shot dead by a Tunisian terrorist, while on the beach in Sousse. This appalling act of violence not only ripped the heart out of many people’s lives locally and back in the UK, but has also had a far-reaching impact on the Tunisian, Middle Eastern and global tourist industry.
As a result, the UK Foreign Office (FCO) Travel Advice advised last Thursday ‘against all but essential travel to Tunisia’.
Having thoroughly enjoyed previous visits to Tunisia, I am greatly saddened by this. Furthermore we at Nomadic Thoughts have been particularly affected as our colleague Claire Bayoudhi, married to Taoufik, and her family have strong family links to the country, with recent plans to move permanently back to Tunisia now on hold.
The FCO decision is dramatic, unusual and questionable.
After two weeks of study the FCO has concluded that the imminent danger to tourists, who were specifically targeted in Sousse, remains too high a risk. The gist of this is that tour operators, who are ultimately responsible for their clients in foreign lands, are left with no option but to repatriate holidaymakers. Business has become impossible in the face of the government’s judgement – and by the lack of travel insurance options.
The decision is unusual as over recent years the FCO has improved on evaluating local scenarios, before issuing specific local Travel Advice. Their observations on tourism dangers very rarely cover a whole country in one decision. For example recent events in north, east and western Africa have resulted in FCO Travel Advice focusing on smaller localised no-go zones, rather than whole countries. Confirming that they consider the whole of Tunisia as a ‘risk-area’ has huge implications on a destination so reliant on tourism. Other EU countries, including France, are only recommending that tourists remain vigilant.
The decision is being debated ferociously by tourism businesses in Tunisia and at home. It appears particularly harsh on the considerable number of locals who rely on international tourists to make their living, and who recently displayed phenomenal acts of bravery. Many of the hotel and beach workers in Sousse protected tourists after the atrocity two weeks ago. Without their help there would surely have been many, many more deaths.
On Wednesday, at AITO (Association of Independent Tour Operators) – of which Nomadic Thoughts is a member – I chaired a debate between fellow travel colleagues, on what the short, medium and long term implications were for Tunisia’s tourist industry. The conclusion was that while the short and medium term impacts would be harsh, the long term impact would not necessarily be so serious. With individual terrorist incidents occurring all over the world, the belief was that Tunisia and its travel employees would be back in business in due course. A three year period was touted as a minimum time frame.
Nabil Ammar, the Tunisian UK ambassador, has voiced his disappointment claiming that the FCO Travel Advice is ‘what the terrorists want’. Equally Habib Essid, the Tunisian Prime Minister has said that he hopes the decision can be reversed as soon as possible.
Similarly others in authority have voiced their concerns over the wisdom of the decision. For example Crispin Blunt, the chairman of the foreign affairs select committee and former conservative minister, has openly criticised the decision, claiming that he would still travel to Tunisia himself.
For my part I think that the present porosity of the Libyan/Tunisian border is the main concern. Without effective control over this stretch of land the continued threat from Islamic fundamentalist sympathisers remains as real as it did two weeks ago. Although I am obviously not party to UK government intelligence, the fact that Libya, like other previous Nomadic Thoughts holiday destinations Syria and Yemen, has become so lawless since the Arab Spring, I believe means the danger to tourists in a region with such poor border controls remains considerably higher than normal.
While I do fully appreciate the impact on our Tunisian tourism industry colleagues’ livelihoods, in this case we have to listen to our government’s judgement. The images of the recent gunman ambling down a Tunisian holiday beach with the sole objective of shooting tourists, young and old, is too strong to ignore. I believe that the ‘right decision at the right time’ should prevail.
Although the difficulty is that the UK Foreign Office are ‘damned if they do, and damned if they don’t’, the images of such devastation, amidst such bravery, will remain fresh, raw and real for some time to come.
Until the combined forces of Tunisia, the international travel industry and people most affected by such events can offer appropriate protection to peace-loving, culture-crossing and dollar-spending tourists, the appropriate Travel Advice should, one presumes, remain in place.