Assessing security in Tunisia

ITIJ 207, April 2018

The news that UK tour operator Thomas Cook is once again offering holidays to Tunisia – after ceasing operations to the country following the terrorist attack on the beach in Sousse in 2015 - guarantees that, once more, hundreds – if not thousands – of British tourists will be heading off to the country’s sandy beaches and historic sites. What of the guarantees of their safety, though?

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) still advises against all but essential travel to certain parts of Tunisia (see map below). The FCO website also carries warnings that there is ‘a heightened risk of terrorism against aviation’, and that a ‘state of emergency is in effect … that has been extended a number of times, most recently in February 2018’. It does, however, then state that the Tunisian government has improved protective security in major cities and tourist resorts since the attack on Sousse in June 2015, in which 30 Britons were among the 38 people killed.

Nonetheless, the Tunisian authorities regularly report that they have disrupted planned attacks and terrorist cells, and made arrests. The FCO states: “The Tunisian authorities have improved security in tourist resorts and their ability to respond to a terrorist incident. Tunisian security forces have also improved and are better prepared to tackle terrorist threats than they were at the time of the 2015 attacks. But further attacks remain likely, including in places visited by foreigners such as tourist resorts. Attacks may be carried out by individuals unknown to the authorities, whose actions may be inspired by terrorist groups.”

Despite the risks, in July 2017, the FCO changed its advice for travel to Tunisia to allow British holidaymakers to travel to certain parts of the country. Thomas Cook responded by restarting its flight and holiday programme to Enfidha this February, with three weekly flights from UK airports. It should be noted that at no point did the governments of France, Belgium or Germany advise against travel to Tunisia, so there were already holiday schedules being run in the country for those tourists who did choose to travel there.

Group Head of Customer Welfare for Thomas Cook Carol MacKenzie said on the firm’s website: “When I visited Tunisia last year, I noticed the increase in security presence on the hotel beaches, and the holidaymakers I spoke to talked of the good, friendly relationship they have with the hotel security and police who patrol the beach and tourist areas. It was also clear how closely the hotels and the police work together.”


Safety perception

The attack in Sousse in 2015 motivated Kate Huet, Managing Director of International Travel and Healthcare Limited (ITHC) in the UK, to launch Safe Journey, a travel insurance policy that specifically offers cover for the holder should they be caught up in a terror attack. So, is ITHC seeing Tunisia hitting the Safe Journey coverage map? Huet said: “It’s probably too soon for large numbers to be reported, but it is there now and was not before. Turkey is very definitely right at the top of the list of destinations that Safe Journey is used for. Now that Tunisia is back open for UK tourist business, I’d expect the numbers to start increasing considerably.”

Noting the information given by the FCO, she agreed that sadly, it is ‘very likely’ that there will be a terror attack in Tunisia again, ‘because tourists are unfortunately soft targets’. She added: “Geographically, on the doorstep are some very unsafe – very ‘no go’ areas. Even within areas of Tunisia there are ‘do not travel’ FCO advisory warnings for the regions nearer the borders with Algeria and Libya. The pressure on the resorts has to be 100-per-cent security focussed, 100 per cent of the time. We can’t even manage this in the UK, so how do we really think Tunisia will do better? Is it possible to keep tourists in the resorts – probably not, and can anyone guarantee their safety when out of the resort perimeter? That would be a definite no. The more that go, the bigger the carrot for the terrorists and the harder the security measures have to work.”

TripAdvisor says of Hammamet, where the majority of Brits and other tourists are headed, that: “Sunbathing, alfresco dining and late-night discos are a way of life,” and “the local medina with its countless narrow souqs and contradictory exit signs,” are key attractions. As Kate Huet points out, what this means in reality is that in a hurry, a tourist won’t be going anywhere fast, even if they have an idea of where to go. So, clearly the area has plenty to offer outside the confines of the resort hotels, and keeping tourists confined to their gated hotel resorts doesn’t seem a terribly realistic option.