afrol News, 14 January - While most Tunisians celebrate the victory of the people in ousting Dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country's key tourism industry sees a large negative impact from the riots and revolution. Tourists are already being evacuated from Tunisia.
While President Ben Ali was a totalitarian leader, tourists from Europe and the Arab world kept streaming to the country at an ever-increasing rate. Only few of the arrivals did even know that Tunisia was a dictatorship, even if they came year after year. Superficially, Tunisia seemed a country in balance.
This widely held picture of Tunisia as a peaceful and safe Mediterranean destination has been completely tarnished during the last week. The Tunisian revolution has been followed closely by media in all of the country's main markets.
With the state of emergency declared in all of Tunisia, and with the unclear political situation after the fall of President Ben Ali, governments from Spain in the south, via Switzerland, Germany and the UK, to Norway in the north have issued travel warnings for Tunisia.
Typically, these travel warnings state that "unnecessary" travels to Tunisia should be avoided. "Unnecessary" travels of course include tourist trips.
In most countries that are Tunisia's main markets, this has great implications. It means travellers can, without extra costs, cancel their trips. Further, it often means charter companies must cancel their trips. In many occasions, it even means travel insurances lose their value, further limiting travellers' ability to visit the country.
In the case of Tunisia, the development has been even more dramatic for the travel industry. Borders, including the Tunisian air space, were closed this afternoon, preventing tourists from entering or leaving the popular destination.
Reports from Tunisia indicate most foreigners on holiday in the country are reacting with relative calm to the ongoing political turmoil. Although the death of a Swiss-Tunisian woman - who was shot as she watched the protesters clashing with police from her second floor balcony - has led to an unease among many travellers.
The unsafe situation has prompted several tour operators to consider an evacuation of charter tourists. British operator Thomas Cook has already started repatriating 1,800 holidaymakers, the company stated today. Six extraordinary flights have been ordered to organise the evacuation, although the closure of Tunisian air space may complicate the operation.
Also some German and Belgian tour operators have made arrangements to evacuate their holidaymakers. The move followed a call by the German Foreign Ministry saying tourists in Tunisia could demand an earlier return given the dangerous situation.
Meanwhile, one cancellation after the other is ticking in, with tour operators and ordinary airlines cancelling most planned trips to Tunisia for the weeks to come. Even cruise ships have started announcing cancellations of stop-overs in Tunis.
While the Tunisian economy is very diversified and the tourism sector only contributes with around 7 percent of the country's GDP, the sector is among the largest employers in the country and gathers for a large number of small and medium-sized companies. Tunisia's tourism sector is estimated to provide some 350,00o jobs, representing some 12 percent of the country's entire workforce.
A longer downturn in the tourism sector due to continued turmoil therefore would deepen the social problems related to a high unemployment rate in the country. These social problems were the direct cause of the protests starting in December, which led to the political riots that finally led to the fall of President Ben Ali today.
Tunisia, along with other North African countries, has experienced impressive growth rates in its tourism sector during the last decade, even during the financial crisis. The sector was among the most promising to further reduce unemployment in the country, with many new resorts being planned along the country's Mediterranean coast.
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