What next for Sousse, Tunisia's former tourist magnet?

What next for Sousse, Tunisia's former tourist magnet?
One year since 38 tourists were shot dead by a lone gunman on the beach, Tunisia's once-buzzing tourism industry is still struggling to recover.
5 min read
29 Jun, 2016
The gate to Sousse beach at the Riu Imperial Marhaba hotel remains locked [Nazanine Moshiri]
Port El Kantaoui is like a large amusement park. About 10km [six miles] north of Sousse, huge sprawling hotels are spread out along long, sandy beaches.

There is a sparkling harbour for yachts which would not look out of place in southern Spain. It expanded at the end of the 1990s, and, at least until last June, was one of Tunisia's most popular holiday resorts.

According to Sousse's tourist board, just 9,000 visitors have come to the town in the past month. Around 6,000 were Russians, and 3,000 from a scattering of European countries.

Compare that with the half-a-million holidaymakers who visited Sousse in the six months before the attack last year.

The number of tourists from the UK has dropped the most, by a staggering 90 percent.

Seventeen out of the 96 hotels in Sousse have closed. Tunisia's government estimates all of this has cost them half a billion dollars.

The Riu Imperial Marhaba, where last June's attack took place tried keep its doors open. It dropped its prices, and cut its costs. However, after its main clients pulled out, it had no choice but to put everything on hold.

Its director, Mehrez Saadi, says the saddest thing was letting so many of their loyal staff go.

Tourists and local hotel staff place flowers at a memorial sign on the beach in front of the Imperial Marhaba hotel in Sousse [Getty]

Saadi says he will never forget how suddenly out of nowhere, "cocktails, and laughter in lobby, were replaced by gunfire".

He almost came face to face with Tunisian gunman Seifeddine Rezgui in the hotel car park as he was trying to get some elderly guests out safely.

British investigators asked him whether hotel management could have "done things differently".

Saadi told the officers that he believes that there was nothing more they could have done.

I covered the attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, in September 2013. It showed that even with armed security, if a gunman is intent on killing, there is very little the government can do about it.

However, what did surprise and anger the victims of the Sousse attack was the slow response of the police.

It is impossible for someone on their own to commit such a crime, it was very organised

Reports said the assault took place over almost 35 minutes, and that the gunman was able to return to kill some of the wounded before the police arrived and he was eventually shot dead in an alley.

The investigation into the killings has raised more questions than answers.

Saadi is sure Rezgui had help: "It is impossible for someone on their own to commit such a crime, it was very organised."

There may not be many tourists in Sousse now, but there are plenty of police. There are armed officers stationed at most road junctions, as well as on hotel beaches.

This is not the kind of image Tunisia wants to be associated with, but then again, it has no choice, as another attack would be catastrophic.

Click to enlarge

Tunisia clearly has an image problem, a Google search for "Tunisia beach", reveals images of corpses covered with towels, and grieving tourists laying flowers at the scene.

Tunisia's government can do little about those images on the internet, but it can put pressure on countries such as the UK to drop their travel warnings - which make it difficult for would-be travellers to obtain insurance.

The MP for Sousse, Mona Ibrahim, says such warnings are hypocritical. 

"Many countries are facing terrorist attacks and yet there are no travel warnings on those countries," Ibrahim says.

"France was targeted in an attack which was almost co- ordinated with the attack on Tunisia, Belgium was attacked; Turkey has faced several terrorist attacks in its most touristic areas. Yet Turkey is full of tourists."

Diplomats have told me that they cannot take a risk with their citizen's lives unless they are sure everything is being done to keep them safe.

Many countries are facing terrorist attacks and yet there are no travel warnings on those countries

However, Tunisia's government is worried that the longer that tourists are told to stay away, the more chance there is of another attack.

This is because jobless and hopeless young people might be more open to the messages of those recruiting for groups such as the Islamic State group.

While many people are wondering whether the industry will ever recover, Tunisia's government is betting it will.

Over the next four years it plans to increase investment in tourism to around a quarter of the country's gross domestic product - that is around $11.5 billion.

There may not be many tourists in Sousse now, but there are plenty of armed officers stationed at most intersections and on hotel beaches [Anadolu]

When Hamdi Khadroui started his degree, he had a guarantee of a job in a hotel at the end of his studies.

Now he has lost hope of ever earning enough money to settle down and get married.

Khadroui says government investment in more huge hotels is not the answer. Hotel owners and tourism agencies are interested only in making money - and not "quality", he says, so they slash prices and the wages of workers, which leads to poor-performing staff and underwhelmed tourists.

Tunisia has always relied on "all inclusive" holidaymakers, who contribute little to the community around them.

Khadroui's idea is to set up an aquarium hotel that combines local art, glass and music. He wants Tunisia to attract more high-end tourists as in Morocco. 

Mona Ibrahim, meanwhile, thinks Tunisia should be focusing on what she calls "conference tourism." But she admits the sector needs radical "structural reforms" for this to come about.

Before last year's attack, the people of Port El Kantaoui felt cut off from the rest of Tunisia, in their own little tourist oasis.

Now the violence and the troubles of Tunisia's neighbour, Libya - and other so-called Arab Spring countries - have arrived on their picturesque beaches.

It may take years before that carefree atmosphere returns.

Mona Ibrahim insists that Tunisia is not "looking for charity". However, she admits it needs assistance, so it can continue "the transition to democracy and freedom".

The reality is that if Tunisia's tourism industry and economy collapses, this progress is under threat.

Follow Nazanine Moshiri on Twitter: @nazaninemoshiri