On Sunday 31 March, suspected Tunisian Salafists launched an arson attack against a new beachside development in Hergla, on the west coast of Tunisia. Salafist movements have previously attacked the entertainment sector targeting art galleries, museum and cinema since the 2011 revolution but tourism had never been targeted until this attack. Hergla is a not only a popular tourist destination, known for its beaches and sunny weather, but is also a stronghold for Salafists. Tunisia’s image as an ideal holiday destination has now been stained by the rise of religious extremism widely covered by international newspapers, and Tunisia’s main tourist sites and beaches are now empty of tourists. If this trend persists, the Tunisian economy will be badly affected as the government plans to leverage the tourism sector to spur economic recovery.
Tunisia is a favoured tourist destination for Europeans, especially for French tourists looking for warm weather during the winter. Tourism was badly hit by the revolution as it fell by 50 percent between January 2010 and January 2012 and the government is desperately trying to boost the sector as it represented 7.3 percent of its GDP in 2012. The government has been trying to encourage a recovery of its economy by expanding the tourism industry as it employed 217,000 people, representing 6.6 percent of total employment in 2012.
Tunisia is keen to expand the sector in order to create jobs and respond to the unemployment crisis, given that one in five Tunisians are employed by the tourism industry. For example, the new beachside development in Hergla was supposed to attract tourists and create employment opportunities for the citizens of Hergla. This beachside development was one of the new projects being created alongside a new promotional tourism campaign launched in April with the slogan “Live in Tunisia Freely”.
This new campaign seeks to promote Tunisia’s cultural heritage as well as health tourism such as water spa treatments and plans to attract 6.8 million tourists in 2013 and 10 million in 2016.
Despite the government’s effort to encourage tourism and promote a secure country, the reality of Tunisia’s political and security instability has severely affected the sector. International agencies recently predicted a recovery in the sector during summer 2013, but with recent events and media coverage depicting a violent image of Tunisia, the tourist season has had a slow start. The number of tourists in the January/February period in 2010 was 657,607; in 2011 it was 361,824; in 2012 it was 566,161 and in 2013 it was 527,467. The decrease in the number of visitors between 2012 and 2013 is by 6.8 percent and by 19.8 percent between 2013 and 2010. This fall in visitors between 2010 and 2013 can be explained by the threat of instability throughout Tunisia.
Managing director of Strategic Analysis political risk consultancy, Ruth Lux, comments: “Tunisia’s credit rating has been gradually downgraded by international ratings agencies as a consequence of Tunisia’s political instability raising costs for Tunisia to secure financing on international markets which it requires to reduce its budget deficit.
“Tourism offset over a third of Tunisia’s 2.83 billion dinars ($1.76bn) trade deficit in the third quarter of 2012. Nonetheless foreign direct investment (FDI) increased from 1.62 billion dinars ($1bn) in 2011 to 3.00 billion dinars ($1.87bn) in 2012 suggesting that, provided political stability increases, Tunisia is unlikely to see a decrease in FDI.”
Since 2011 political and security instability has manifested in a number of high profile incidents. On 14 September 2012, the US embassy in Tunis was attacked by hundreds of protesters after the release of a controversial film on Prophet Mohammad. As a result two people died and 29 were injured.
The government blamed Islamic Salafists and particularly the most prominent jihadist organisation in Tunisia, Ansar Al Sharia. The attack was broadcasted around the world, projecting a negative image of Tunisia in the Western world and increased the perceived threat of a rising extremist movement.
The escalation of general insecurity was exacerbated by the assassination of the government opposition leader. On 6 February 2013, Chokri Belaid was assassinated in front of his house which deepened tensions within the country. The secular party blamed the ruling Ennahda party for the assassination, while Ennahda has actively denied any involvement. Belaid’s assassination provoked civil unrest throughout the country and was followed by the resignation of prime minister Hamadi Jebali on 19 February 2013 further eroding political instability in Tunisia.
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