Travel

The Terror Attack That Destroyed Tunisia's Tourist Industry

Since the Sousse attacks of 2015, Tunisia's deckchairs have been empty and its hotels abandoned.

by Henry Wismayer
Aug 4 2016, 3:35pm

Empty deckchairs at a Tunisian hotel. All photos by the author

More than a year has passed since Seifeddine Rezgui, a student and wannabe breakdancer, smuggled a Kalashnikov onto Sousse's Boujaafar Beach in Tunisia and started firing. But the massacre he perpetrated in the name of the Islamic State, which left 38 tourists dead, has cut visitor numbers in half and left Tunisia's reputation as the Mediterranean's most affordable package destination in tatters.

The British market has made the most impact so far. Home to 30 of the Sousse victims, the UK accounted for more than 420,000 visitors to Tunisia in 2014. But last year's atrocity prompted the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to issue an advisory warning its nationals against traveling to the country. No longer able to insure their customers, the major tour companies immediately pulled the plug on their Tunisian operations. Charter flights from the UK abruptly ceased.

I've come here against the advice of my government to see firsthand how one man with a gun can bring an entire industry to its knees.

Police on Boujaafar Beach

Step onto Boujaafar Beach today, down the lane where a policeman's bullet finally put an end to Rezgui's rampage on the June 25, 2015, and you might not immediately appreciate the extent of Sousse's troubles.

There are a few tourists here, mostly Russians lured by cut-price deals. But walk a hundred yards farther, and you'll encounter a no-man's land—a stretch of empty sand where the only presence is a pair of police patrolling on a quad-bike, the one riding pillion holding a shotgun across his knees.

At the rear, behind a bank strewn with thatched parasols, the tan walls of a sprawling resort complex have been cut off from the beach by a chain-link fence and coils of barbed wire. This is the Imperial Merhaba Hotel, where Rezgui continued the spree he'd started on the beach. Now it sits abandoned, one of almost 200 major Tunisian hotels to have shuttered in the last year.

Jihed and Mo'jgow

Off to one side, I find Mo'jgow Sahbi and Jihed Hassen sitting under a timber awning. Down at the shoreline, the tools of their 20-year-old water-sports company are lined up in the hope of customers: a folded parasail and two jet skis sit beside a banana boat with killer-whale markings. But their speed boats are beached, the footwells accumulating sand. They tell me business is nonexistent.

"We are all suffering, my friend," says Hassen, the younger of the two. "The shops, the hotels, the taxis, you can't imagine."

Both claim to have saved lives last June, corralling 100 terrified tourists into the neighboring hotel compound, imploring the shooter to stop his rampage.

"It's not fair—we did what we could," says Hassen when I ask about the UK's travel ban. "Since the revolution, most of our guests have been British. Now we just come to sit."

Theirs is a grudge shared by many in Tunisia. Speaking to the people here, in the medinas and the cafes, on the beaches and the promenades, some common opinions emerge. The abrupt decline of Tunisia's tourist industry, many say, feels like a betrayal of the optimism that accompanied the Arab Spring in 2011, which saw the overthrow of the autocratic president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and a democratic government rise in his stead.

A new constitution was adopted in 2014, and free elections took place peacefully at the end of the year. But Tunisia's new-found pluralism has also turned it into a target for extremists, hell-bent on creating an Islamic world under the boot heel of Sharia law.

Despite the brutal terror attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis last March, which left 24 dead, 2015 was set to be a bumper year for Tunisian tourism. Then came Sousse, and foreign arrivals—whose spending accounts for 15 percent of Tunisia's GDP—slowed to a trickle. Now there is frustration that the tourists' abandonment of Tunisia, as symbolized by Britain's travel ban, has exacted a cruel and disproportionate economic penalty on a whole country for the crimes of a few extremists. Look at Brussels, they say. Look at Paris, where brutal attacks have been carried out more recently and with greater casualties. Why has the international community turned its back on Tunisia? One conclusion—that Tunisia has been harshly treated because it is a Muslim country—is a common topic of conjecture.

But this sense of grievance is tempered, too, by a recognition that Sousse was different, that the image the reports painted—of sunbathers murdered where they lay, of families pursued through hotel corridors, of Rezgui laughing as he pulled the trigger—will take time to expunge.

In the meantime, people are left to pray that there is no repeat. For ISIS, whose propagandists have described Sousse and the Bardo Museum as "dens of vice," tourists are a vulnerable embodiment of Western decadence—legitimate targets for righteous extirpation. With neighboring Libya in turmoil, and the border notoriously porous, only the most blinkered optimist would guarantee that there may not be more to come.

If Sousse still molders under the memories of last June, Hammamet, an hour's drive up coast, at the northern tip of its eponymous bay, feels like a place in the aftermath of apocalypse. In this former fishing village, the place where the Tunisian tourist industry began in the early 1960s, tourism is the only game in town, and the sense of ennui—of thwarted hospitality—is hard to bear.

The main road is so devoid of traffic that I can walk up the middle of the roadway, and inside the sprawling whitewashed resort hotels that line it my footsteps echo across empty marbled lobbies. Down at the harbor, huge mock galleons, capable of carrying more than 100 tourists on day cruises, are moored in a row, looking all the more preposterous for their pointlessness.

Down on Hammamet's beach, a young man selling camel rides responds to my question about how his business is faring by opening his arms toward an empty beach. He tells me that the only people coming here now are Russian (though Russians were among the victims of Sousse, I'd find out later that numbers are up 650 percent on last year). But where the absent British paid $8 for a ride down the sand on Fatima, Abdul's undernourished camel, the Russians offer 40 cents. He has no choice but to accept.

By now, any residual anxiety I might have felt about visiting Tunisia has long since evaporated. Looking left and right down Hammamet's vacant coastline, there's perverse reassurance in the reality that there is hardly anyone here to target.

How do you get rid of a black mark like Sousse? This is the question currently faced by Tarek Aiouadi, Tunisia's UK director of tourism, who I meet in another cavernous hotel atrium in Gammarth, just outside of Tunis.

On the knee-high table in front of him is a stack of paper detailing the latest quantification of the challenge he faces. Latest UK tourism numbers, he says, are down 93.2 percent. Like everyone I speak to in Tunisia, Aiouadi is anxious not to downplay the horror of Sousse. But he too believes the FCO response has been disproportionate.

"Indirectly you are telling [the Islamists] that they are winning," he says. "You can see their victory in what has happened in this country."

He points to the increased security I've seen during my trip up the coast as evidence of the country's efforts to reassure and recover: the metal detectors and under-car mirrors that now punctuate the hotel entrances. Only this morning, at Carthage, a ring of armed sentries stood at 164-foot intervals around the crumbling walls and columns of the long-dead empire, there to safeguard the tourists who, for the hour I was there, numbered half a dozen.

Out of the ruins, Aiouadi clings to hope. For too long, he says, Tunisia has focused on the mass market. But the country has more to offer. He enthuses about the interior, an area the size of England, a place of mountains, oases, and desert where tourists rarely venture. Perhaps the events of last year will catapult Tunisia toward a long overdue diversification, from the unreconstructed beachside tourism of the past to something more sustainable.

"We are going to bounce back," says Aiouadi. "But it's going to take time."

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