UK travel advice is keeping Tunisia in purgatory

UK travel advice is keeping Tunisia in purgatory
Comment: Tunisia's tourism industry is essential to bringing down unemployment figures. It is high time the UK government reviewed its travel advice, writes James Denselow.
5 min read
11 May, 2017
June 2017 will mark two years since the deadly attack in Sousse, killing 38 [AFP]

It is almost two years since a single gunman took the lives of 38 people in the Tunisian beach resort of Sousse. The incident delivered a hammer blow to tourism in the country, and the restrictive travel advice from the UK means that many resorts remain devoid of major bookings ahead of the summer season.
The people of Tunisia are suffering the opaque decision-making that surrounds assessing the nature of risk for advising tourists on the threats from modern day "terrorism". 

France, and Paris in particular have experienced several deadly incidents over the past two years. And when I was in Tunisia last month, the cafes in Sousse were abuzz with opinions over the recent Champs-Élysées shooting. Yet whilst the FCO advises against all but essential travel to Tunisia, no such warning exists for France.
The original hope and expectations of the Arab Spring have changed dramatically as the winds of a deadly Arab Winter have blown over countries such as Syria and Libya. Tunisia - the spark that lit the torch paper of resentment against corrupt and unaccountable elites - remains the most optimistic story to date.
For this fragile new system of government to work, it's crucial that they are able to address the youth unemployment rate of over 30 percent. Visiting the tourism training colleagues in Sousse, I heard how the annual intake of 220 students was for one of the most competitive programmes in the country.

In the past, the colleague's graduates were guaranteed jobs in the tourism sector as the hotel managers of tomorrow. Today these bright young minds, armed with four languages and training in all facets of tourism are struggling to find work after graduation.
Hotels are closed and contracts are shorter term, symbolic of the uncertainty that many Tunisians are facing over their future. The types of tourists who do come visiting, are different, and are spending less.

Yet while the FCO advises against all but essential travel to Tunisia, no such warning exists for France

Yet Tunisia remains the 77th out of 189 countries in terms of World Bank ranking for ease of doing business. The appeal and potential of the tourism sector is obvious. At the imposing Movenpick hotel, camera crews filmed "Tunisia's next top model" while inside the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, an International Gastronomy Association with nearly 25,000 members celebrated fine dining. One member told me when I asked about the reason they'd chosen Sousse for their celebrations, that "food is peace". 
But what is a country to do when their neighbour is on fire? To Tunisia's east lies the simmering chaos of Libya. Those Libyans who could afford to seek shelter in Tunisia have done so, and the country's lack of an international airport means that Tunisia is the point of departure for a constant stream of Libyans looking to travel further afield. Tunisia has taken steps to address the security threat it faces, has increased border patrols, and has dug border barrier - all to this end.  

  Read more: Thomas Cook scraps Sharm al-Sheikh holidays over terror fears

The backdrop of additional security at hotels and around resort towns, in addition to the wider strategic deployment to the east could have been seen as putting Tunisia on the right path to a cleaner bill of health for tourism. Yet the UK restrictions remain in place, and were made even tighter when the British government banned ipads and other large tablets from incoming flights in March. 
This sent a terrible message to would-be tourists, undoing the steps to improve Tunisia's bruised image as a tourist destination. In stark contradiction with images of sun-drenched holidays on glittering Mediterranean beaches, the ban only served to ramp up paranoia about personal safety.  
UK policy makers who decide whether Tunisia's travel light stays red or goes green, wield great power. The political risk of allowing or encouraging British tourists back to the country means they are massively exposed were an incident to occur. Yet the livelihoods of thousands of Tunisian are also at stake.

Hotels are closed and contracts are shorter term, symbolic of the uncertainty that many Tunisians are facing over their future

So what is the solution? For starters, the blanket nature of UK travel advice needs to be adjusted, and zones of safety, particularly around resorts, should be recognised.
Not such a dissimilar tactic was used following the Luxor massacre, killing 62 people, mainly tourists, back in 1997. The Egyptian authorities succeeded in turning the tourist town into a precursor to the "green zones" we'd one day seen in Iraq. Unbeknownst to most visitors, there was tight control around all access into the area.
The Tunisian authorities argue that they have taken the technical and operational steps necessary to mitigate the risk of the challenges they face. A UK inquiry into the Sousse killings blamed "cowardly" Tunisian security forces for allowing the gunmen to proceed for so long, unchallenged. People in Sousse report that was that there was indeed a friendly, laid back interaction with the police, typical of many beach resorts around the world.
The paradox of high security in a place that is intended to be relaxing, continues to haunt those who used to work in the Tunisian tourist industry, but now wait in a purgatory shaped by our governments' approach to modern day risk.

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform.

Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.