Tourists are expected to return to Tunisia in greater numbers than ever this summer as the North African country puts itself firmly back on the British holiday map.
The nation’s tourism industry suffered in the wake of a Foreign Office (FCO) travel restriction imposed following a terrorist attack in 2015 on the popular resort of Sousse that left 38 dead, including 30 Britons.
Last year the FCO lifted its travel ban, prompting British operators to renew flights to Tunisia’s Mediterranean coast.
Thomas Cook, one of the key operators in Tunisia, has increased its capacity in the country since the FCO decision. The number of hotels offered will rise from six to 24 this summer, and the number of weekly flights from the UK will increase from four to 17.
Have Tunisian resorts improved security?
Carol MacKenzie, the Thomas Cook group head of customer welfare, said: “In the intervening years since that very sad day [in 2015], the Tunisian government has worked to improve its security and the way its police and security teams can respond to terrorist incidents.
“It is this work which meant that the UK government were able to announce that they are now satisfied that British travellers can return to the country. Although the FCO continues to advise against travel to some parts of the Tunisian interior and along its borders, this does not affect the resorts which are some distance away.”
The Foreign Office agrees. Its guidance says: “Since the terrorist attack in Sousse in June 2015, which targeted tourists, the UK government has been working closely with the Tunisian authorities to investigate the attack and the wider threat from terrorist groups. The Tunisian government has improved protective security in major cities and tourist resorts.”
MacKenzie said that when she visited in 2017 she noticed an increased security presence on hotel beaches, and said hotels and police were working more closely.
Is all of Tunisia safe?
No – the Foreign Office still advises against travel to parts of southern and western Tunisia, especially where the country borders Libya.
It advises against all travel to:
- The Chaambi Mountains National Park and the designated military operations zones of Mount Salloum, Mount Sammamma and Mount Mghila
- The militarised zone south of the towns of El Borma and Dhehiba
- Within 20km of the rest of the Libya border area north of Dhehiba
- The town of Ben Guerdane and immediate surrounding area
The FCO advise against all but essential travel to:
- All other areas within 75km of the Libyan border, including Remada, El Borma and the town of Zarzis
- The governorate of Kasserine, including the town of Sbeitla
- Within 10km of the border with Algeria south of Kasserine governorate
- Within 30km of the border in El Kef and Jendouba governorates south of the town of Jendouba, including the archaeological site of Chemtou
- Areas north and west of the town of Ghardimaou in Jendouba governorate
It warns that there is a heightened risk of terrorism against aviation, which is why additional security measures have been put in place regarding electronic devices.
A state of emergency remains in place in the country, too, imposed in 2015 and since extended a number of times. It was most recently extended last month.
The FCO says: “Terrorists are still very likely to try to carry out attacks in Tunisia. Security forces remain on a high state of alert in Tunis and other places. You should be vigilant at all times, including around religious sites and festivals.”
The main terror threat comes from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Libya-based extremists with links to Isis.
Carol MacKenzie said: “Please remember that like other popular North African tourist destinations Morocco and Egypt, the UK government also warns that ‘further attacks remain likely, including in places visited by foreigners such as tourist resorts.
“Taking your loved ones anywhere is a serious decision and ultimately of course it’s up to you where you choose to go on holiday. You should always consult FCO travel advice before making your decision. Whichever Thomas Cook holiday you choose, you can always be assured that your safety is our first priority.”
Has Tunisia’s tourism industry suffered?
Yes, and especially in terms of British visitors, though other European countries have continued to offer flights and packages over the past two years.
Arrivals in the immediate aftermath of the attack fell heavily. Figures from the country’s Ministry of Tourism showed that in the first half of 2016, visitors were down 25 per cent to 4.3 million, crippling one of the nation’s biggest GDP contributors. In 2014 427,000 UK citizens visited; in 2016 that figure fell to less than 50,000.
However, 2018 was a record year for the country, as arrivals returned to pre-2015 levels, around 8 million. Optimism abounds for the summer season ahead.
Why go to Tunisia?
Aside from the winter sun, sandy beaches and exceptional value, Tunisia offers a wealth of cultural and archaeological draws.
Chris Leadbeater, who visited for Telegraph Travel last November, found a country primed for the return of British tourists, especially when it comes to visiting the majestic amphitheatre of El Djem.
“To cross its threshold is to tumble into the third century – into the din of gladiatorial sword-clash and the roar of lions in holding pens,” he wrote. “Three tiers of seats rise, and you can still go up, upon stairs that have sustained a million footsteps, to the top level, and peer down in awe. Again, I do this with little company – there are maybe 20 other visitors on a warm morning. I cast my mind back to my last trip to Rome, to the queues at the Colosseum – to the postcard touts and the thrust of selfie-sticks – and whisper to myself the sacrilege that, for breathless glimpses of the stadiums of ancient times, El Djem might well be the superior location.”
Five reasons to visit Tunisia
1. Amphitheatre of El Jem
One of the largest and best-preserved Roman amphitheatres in the world, this Unesco World Heritage Site was built around 238AD and had room for 35,000 people. It featured in films including Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Gladiator.
The Carthaginians ruled much of the Mediterranean from the 6th century BC until 146 BC, when its capital was destroyed by Rome. A second – Roman – Carthage was built in its place, the remains of which can still be seen.
The country’s capital offers “laid-back atmosphere, blazing blue skies, glittering views of the sea, harissa, fish couscous and shisha smoking,” said Rosemary Behan, writing for Telegraph Travel in 2008. Its medina is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
4. Sidi Bou Saïd
One of the most beautiful villages in the Mediterranean, around 15 miles from Tunis. With its cobbled streets and blue-and-white-painted houses, it could have been airlifted straight from a Greek island.
5. Sfax and Kerkennah
Sfax, Tunisia’s second city, has a bustling medina and is a good base for exploring the Kerkennah Islands, a low-key beach holiday option.
Is the Foreign Office going to lift its restrictions to Sharm el-Sheikh?
Egypt’s fortunes seemed to mirror Tunisia’s after the downing of a passenger jet shortly after it left Sharm el-Sheikh’s airport in October 2015. But the FCO is yet to lift travel restrictions to this popular Red Sea resort.
The Egyptian government has invested heavily in improving security at Sharm el-Sheikh, once the country’s beach holiday stalwart, but has began to market other areas of the country, seemingly giving up hope on the FCO ever lifting their restrictions on flying to Sharm.
Tourism minister Mohamed Yehia Rashed told Telegraph Travel that “the lights have not switched off in Sharm el-Sheikh” but that its marketing strategy needed to “evolve” should the flight ban remain in place.