Tourists and visitors from the Bardo museum are evacuated in Tunis, Wednesday, March 18, 2015 in Tunis, Tunisia. (Photo: AP)
In the wake of a vicious attack that left 21 people, including 17 European tourists, dead at a major museum in Tunisia, a country that has been a bastion of democratic progress in the region, we have to ask — is it safe for tourists to travel in North Africa?
Security forces raided the famous National Bardo Museum in Tunis on Wednesday shortly after an initial attack by men with assault rifles, in the hopes of rescuing remaining hostages. Hundreds of tourists fled the area with several gunmen believed to still be at large. The Tunisian Prime Minister announced that the tourists killed were from Poland, Italy, Britain, Germany, and Spain.
Related: Gunmen Open Fire in Museum in Turkey
During the attack, two cruise ships were in port, including the Costa Fascinosa and the MSC Splendida, and gunmen fired at passengers as they disembarked from tour buses at the museum. MSC Cruises reported that nine passengers had been killed, 12 passengers were injured, and six were unaccounted for. According to Costa Cruises, 13 passengers had not returned to the ship, which left port early Thursday morning. Both companies have discontinued sailing to Tunisia.
Tunisia, just 96 miles from the southern tip of Italy, has long been a popular tourist destination for Europeans and just last year it was described as “a beacon of hope” in one of the world’s most troubled regions. But following the attacks, the U.S. Embassy and the British Consulate in Tunis have both issued travel warnings for the country, specifically to various border regions. They have also warned people to stay clear of the area directly surrounding the museum, which includes the country’s parliament buildings.
A victim arrives at the Charles Nicoles hospital after gunmen attacked the National Bardo Museum in central Tunis, Wednesday, March 18, 2015. (Photo: AP)
The British Foreign Office has also warned travelers of the “high threat of terrorism, including kidnapping,” saying “attacks could be indiscriminate, including places frequented by expatriates and foreign travelers.”
Just last year, Tunisia and Egypt both indefinitely canceled flights to and from Libya for security reasons. Egypt is just beginning to recover from the revolution that took place four years ago. And just last month the U.S. and other countries issued a stern travel warning to those considering traveling to Algeria, saying “there is a high risk of terrorism and kidnappings in Algeria” — linked largely to Islamic extremist groups operating within the country.
But despite the clear risk to tourists in the region, the Tunisian Tourism Minister tourism minister Selma Elluni Rekik denied reports of terrorism risk within hours of the recent attacks.
“Of course the situation in Libya does not help, as is always the case when there are problems in neighboring countries. However, our borders are absolutely impermeable to any infiltration attempt. There is no security problem in Tunisia. Everything is under control,” Rekik said.
Even with the promise of safety from the Tunisian government, the tourism industry to the North African region is likely to suffer tremendously.
“The outcome of this will likely be negative for tourism in Tunisia,” says Lynn Minnaert, clinical assistant professor of hospitality and tourism at the NYU School of Professional Studies. “I am really worried that people will lose confidence in the country. Tunisia has always kept a pristine image as a tourist destination but I feel that that has been severely tarnished now.”
And unfortunately, Minnaert believes this effect is likely to be long term.
“If you compare it to Egypt, which is only now getting out of a three-year lag in arrivals (following a civil revolution in 2011 followed by years of violence where thousands were killed) the best thing to do is to keep reassuring the international community via the press and via PR that things are safe.”
But clearly, just telling people that the country is safe will not be enough.
“That (reassurance) usually goes hand in hand with severe price reductions to ensure that people are coming back. It is not great for the industry, but it needs to be done to push people over the edge to come back.”
Piotr Kostrzewski, who grew up in Tunisia, is a noted scholar on the North African region and is now a tour operator there with the company Cross Cultural Adventures, echoes Minneart’s sentiments.
“The bottom line is that although this might have been an isolated attack, generally the way tourism reacts to these things is with a certain amount of paranoia,” he explains. “Obviously, a lot will depend on the immediate future and what they find and who they find, but there will be a definite slow down.”
But Tunisia and their tourism industry are unlikely to take this lying down and will go to great lengths to protect its visitors and their safety.
Tunisia’s ancient ruins of Carthage are a major tourist destination. (Photo: Thinkstock)
“Tunisia has blissfully stayed out of the news when it comes to this for a long time, “ shares Kostrzewski. “But I can guarantee that places like the Bardo Museum and other tourist sites that up until now have had zero security will now have a very tight security. This is the first time that tourists in Tunisia have been targeted. I think that this one incident will pass. Tunisia and Morocco are the two safest countries in the region right now.”
In his speech about the attacks, the country’s Prime Minister, Habib Essid, also promised increased security in tourist zones and asked residents to be extra alert.
Authorities said scores of people are dead after an attack on a major museum in the Tunisian capital, and some of the gunmen may have escaped. (Photo: AP)
“But is there anyway safe in the world right now?” asks Tunisian travel specialist Sarah Fitzpatrick of Unique Travel, a travel agency based in Palm Beach, Florida. “Is Miami any safer than Tunisia right now? Is France?”
“I always think the safest time to go anywhere is immediately after an incident,” Fitzpatrick claims. “Security is hyped and at its highest alert. When you look at it sensibly.”
All travelers to the North Africa region are advised to look at the State Department’s website as well as the local U.S. embassy website of your travel destination for up-to-date information on the situation.