JEAN-JACQUES CORNISH: Thomas Cook’s hit on Tunisian tourism


The demise of travel giant Thomas Cook has dealt a body blow to tourism-reliant Tunisia that is only just recovering from the damage done by two terrorist attacks in 2015 that killed 41 mainly British visitors.

For two years after those attacks in Sousse and in the capital Tunis, the British government declared Tunisia off limits to its citizens.

Other governments issued travel advisories that deterred their citizens from visiting the North African country that earns eight percent of its GDP from tourism.

Tunisia was hoping that after the all-clear was sounded, its proximity to Europe, idyllic Mediterranean beaches and well-priced accommodation and restaurants would draw nine-million people this year.

Thomas Cook booked less than ten percent of these. But it owned the company Sendito that accommodated them.

When it closed earlier this month, no fewer than 4,500 Britons were stranded in Tunisia.

Local hotels, left unpaid by the travel agency, realised they had little hope of getting their money.

Some even briefly held their guests, hoping to get some payment from them.

However, the guests are not liable for the money owed by Thomas Cook.

There were some tense moments at Tunisia airport when some of the people departing to get home committed that most unpardonable of British sins: queue jumping.

All the Brits have now been repatriated, mostly on flights chartered by the British government.

There is a heavy, armed police presence at Tunisia’s major tourism sites: these include El Jem, the Roman amphitheatre, the medina in Tunis, Carthage the Roman city in Africa and the iconic blue-and-white village of Sidi Bou Said outside the capital.

This is reminiscent of the police state unapologetically run by the late President Ben Ali.

Tunisian authorities relaxed considerably after Ben Ali’s fall in the 2011 Arab Spring.

Candidly but confidentially, they admit they dropped their guard.

The peaceful first round of the presidential elections earlier this month demonstrated the ability of the security forces to hold the ring.

They are determined to repeat this control at Sunday’s parliamentary election and the presidential run-off on 13 October.

This will underpin Tunisia’s status as the only democracy to have emerged from the Arab Spring.

It will also, hopefully, reassure holiday makers considering a Tunisian destination.

Jean-Jacques Cornish is an Africa correspondent at Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @jjcornish