July 26, 2017 was a big day for Tunisian tourism. After two painful years of isolation from the UK market, the north African nation was finally given the all-clear for tourists to return to (most of) its shores by the UK’s Foreign Office. The FCO’s travel ban had followed two brutal attacks on tourists in 2015 – one at the Bardo Museum in Tunis leaving 21 dead (mostly European travellers) and the murder of 38 tourists in Sousse – the latest TTG Debate, hosted in association with News UK, in London last week, explored how the country, and indeed the trade, will attempt to win Britons back.
First up was the issue of why Tunisia had been cast into the wilderness for so long, especially since nations such as France and Germany – both of which had nationals killed in the same terrorist attacks – had not implemented travel bans. Can Deniz, managing director of Tunisia specialist Sunshine Holidays, said it was difficult for the tourist trade to receive information from officials, and that the UK government did little to consult with operators.
“These were big attacks: lots of people were killed and there needed to be a reaction, but the problem was it [the travel ban] lasted too long. Why was it OK for the other European countries to travel but not for the British? In that respect Tunisia has been treated unfairly,” said Deniz.
The poor response of security forces during the Sousse beach attack – criticised during the UK inquest – may have been a reason for the enduring advice, he suggested, although Deniz argued this could be partly excused because Tunisia had little experience dealing with large-scale incidents before the 2015 attacks.
“Criticising the security services in Tunisia is right because they should have acted quicker,” he said. “But you have to ask the question, if the same thing happened near Doncaster in a small village, how long would it take for the police officer or ambulance or fire engine to arrive? And England, France and Spain had terrorism experience, but Tunisia didn’t. It was a very brutal event and they didn’t know how to react.”
Mounira Derbel, director at the Tunisia National Tourist Office (TNTO), told debate attendees that the country was now “as safe as any European country”, following widespread improvements in security. CCTV has been installed in resorts and at major tourist sites, while the police and army have received extra training in handling terrorism-related events. There are also high-profile patrols on the beaches.
Lisa Minot, travel editor of The Sun, stressed it was vital for Tunisia to address this perception of safety while returning with the good-quality all-inclusive product it was known for. She said Britons had a “risk versus price” register, which meant they would dismiss suspect destinations until prices fell to a point acceptable to them.
“Tunisia was extremely popular,” she said. “It offered very good value. That long-stay market it used to have meant people would go out for the entire winter for a better price than heating their homes back in the UK.”
“We’ve seen with Turkey – where the bottom fell out of the market – that it had a strong lates season when people saw the prices and thought they’d go back. We will see that again with Tunisia but it’s likely to be slower.
“There is still that fear that if you are taking your family and children something could happen, and it’s not based on logic or informed opinion, it is just in peoples’ heads.”
While Thomas Cook has become the first major operator to make a tentative return to Tunisia, all the panellists agreed the country could only begin to recover if airlift improved, with regional flights a priority.
Can Deniz, managing director, Just Sunshine Holidays
Mounira Derbel, director, Tunisian National Tourist Office
Lisa Minot, travel editor, The Sun
In 2014 Tunisia saw 91 flights per week from the UK, but had only 7 per week during the travel advisory period, and will have just 15 when Thomas Cook begins operations in February 2018.
“Hoteliers will offer discounts and incentives,” said Deniz, “but if the top operators do not commit to flights then people won’t be able to go. Tour operating is a commercial business and companies are not going to put flights where they risk empty seats. They will play it safe with Gatwick and Manchester, so we have to show there is demand elsewhere.”
Derbel said the TNTO had spoken to all operators that previously offered Tunisia to gauge their ambitions, but admitted her plans for the UK were still on the drawing board. With more than one million jobs – 10% of Tunisia’s employment – relying on tourism, it is undeniably vital that Brits return, she added.
Top of the agenda for the organisation is a three-year destination marketing and PR contract in the UK, which would begin in the new year, Derbel said.
“We will continue our roadshow programme to educate agents about what is happening on the ground and how to sell Tunisia again,” Derbel added. “Fam trips are being planned too, but we are waiting for the flights.”
Minot and Deniz agreed Tunisia was likely to benefit from the capacity squeeze in European short-haul destinations – caused mainly by the absence of holidays in Tunisia and Sharm el Sheikh, another UK favourite now subject to an air travel ban.
It was also highlighted that cheap deals to destinations such as Vietnam, Mexico and Thailand meant these countries were now rivals to Tunisia at the luxury end of the market.
“The 500,000 people from the UK [that used to go to Tunisia] needed to go somewhere else,” said Deniz. “There is pressure on the capacity in Spain, Greek and Portugal and these hotels have put prices up because demand is so high, some by 30%. And they are refusing to give rooms to smaller tour operators unless the allocations are on guarantee.
“I am confident that once we get into the lates market, when hotels in Europe are full and the euro is high, people will look for alternatives. That is when they look at price and forget about what happened in the past.
“Prices won’t come down further because they are already low,” Deniz added. “It would be cruel for the operators to go back to hoteliers who had no business for two years and demand cheaper holidays. British holidaymakers won’t be able to go to Tunisia for £99.”
With thanks to the hosts of the debate, News UK