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Terror and tourism in Tunisia

Kersten Knipp / dc, bkJune 27, 2015

Terrorist attacks and the 2011 uprising have taken their toll on Tunisia’s tourism sector. The country has done its best to protect visitors, but it stands little chance against terrorists acting alone.

Tote bei Anschlag auf Marhaba Hotel in Sousse Tunesien
Image: Getty Images/AFP/Fethi Belaid

The increased warning level offered no protection in the end. A total of 28 tourists were killed in Friday's attacks on two hotels near the city of Sousse. A dozen more were injured. Among the victims were German tourists.

Germany's Foreign Ministry has set up a crisis team, with a hotline, ++(0)30-5000-3000. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi told the AFP news agency that a "global strategy" is needed in the fight against jihadists. Tunisia, he said, cannot go it alone.

A spokesman from travel group TUI told AFP some 3,800 Germans are in the country on TUI bookings. The company said that customers who have booked holidays in Tunisia for the current summer season can rebook or cancel their trips until September 15 free of charge.

Tote bei Anschlag auf Marhaba Hotel in Sousse Tunesien
Friday's attack is likely to hit Tunisia's tourist sector hardImage: Getty Images/AFP/Fethi Belaid

Increased security measures

There has been a greater focus on security in the region since October 2013, when there was a suicide bombing in Sousse. The bomber blew himself up on a beach, but no one was killed. After the attack on the Bardo museum in March of this year, Tunisian officials once again increased security precautions.

But it was clear that these measures could only offer tourists limited protection. Following the 2013 bombing, Tunisian politician and businessman in the tourism sector, Ahmed Smaoui, said that - while tighter controls and precautions were necessary - they were not enough. "The actual solution to the terrorism problem involves ending the political, economic, and social crisis that began in January 2011 (the start of the uprising against former dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben-Ali)," he said.

Social background of Jihadism

The political crisis has been overcome. But the social and economic problems remain. Unemployment is officially at 15 percent, but among young people, it's much higher. In the urban areas on the coast, the rate is around 24 percent, while in rural areas in the southern part of the country, almost every second person between the ages of 15 and 29 is out of work. Tunisia is also a poor country: The average Tunisian has an income of 8,100 euros a year.

Poverty and lack of prospects play into the hands of the jihadi terrorists. "Desperate young men can easily become victims of jihadist propagandists," the activist Noumen Mhamdi, of the Tunisian city of Kasserine, told French newspaper Le Monde earlier this month. The people of Kasserine were particularly vociferous opponents of Ben Ali's regime in 2011. But their bravery brought little economic reward: the town's economy has not gained momentum following the revolution, and some citizens have joined radical Islamist groups. "Islamic State. Enemies of Allah, you will live in fear," reads some graffiti written on the wall of a school, according to the Le Monde reporter.

But poverty is not the only factor that supports terrorism. At least some of those arrested in connection with March's attack on the Bardo museum in Tunis came from prosperous backgrounds. Altogether, estimates say, around 3,000 Tunisians are currently fighting for "Islamic State" in Syria and Iraq.

Synagoge auf Djerba Tunesien
The attack on the Djerba synagogue in 2002 left 19 deadImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Dangers for tourism

The destructive energy of the jihadists is a serious danger for Tunisia. Tourism represents 7 percent of the country's GDP - it has created 400,000 jobs and employs roughly 12 percent of the working population. But the vulnerability of the sector was first made clear with the attack on a synagogue on the island of Djerba in April 2002. Nineteen tourists were killed, including 14 Germans, while another 30 were injured. One of the perpetrators was also German - Christian Ganczarski, born in 1966. In February 2009, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison for being an accessory to murder and membership of a terrorist organization.

Before the attack, around 300,000 German tourists visited Djerba every year, a figure that dropped dramatically afterwards - in 2003, only 120,000 Germans visited Tunisia.

The 2011 revolution also affected tourism - though less than originally feared. In 2014, some six million people visited the country - a decline of 15 percent on 2010. But Friday's attack may well have negated all those efforts.