Tunisians fear tourism dealt fatal blow by beach slaughter

Tunisians stand on the beach in the aftermath of the shooting attack.
Tunisians stand on the beach in the aftermath of the shooting attack.AFP

SOUSSE, Tunisia (AFP) - In Sousse's once-bustling medina, Tunisian craftsman Ali Soltani nervously leafed through a newspaper on Saturday looking for more details about the deadly gun attack on a popular resort nearby.

"All hope is lost. It's a fatal blow for tourism," he sighed.

At least 38 people, many of them British tourists, were killed on Friday when a Tunisian student disguised as a holidaymaker opened fire at a resort in Port el Kantaoui just north of Sousse.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group said it was behind the massacre, which left residents deeply shocked and fearing the worst for the future of tourism.

"What happened yesterday hasn't really sunk in yet," Soltani said. "It's more than a catastrophe. We've lost all hope for several years to come."

At a nearby shop, leatherworker Kamel Ben Sadok was still stunned by Friday's events.

"I don't enjoy work any more. Since yesterday, we've been looking at each other like idiots, unable to do anything. We aren't used to such carnage," he said.

Many Tunisians are having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that the country has suffered two deadly attacks just three months apart, both targeting foreigners.

On March 18, 21 tourists and a Tunisian policeman were killed in an attack by two gunmen at the National Bardo Museum in the capital Tunis.

"It's very painful," said Alya, who lives in Sousse.

FALL IN REVENUES, OCCUPANCY

"The wounds were still healing from the Bardo attack, and now we've been dealt an even bigger blow."

In April, the tourism industry saw a 25.7 per cent drop in the number of visitors compared with the same month in 2014, and a 26.3 per cent fall in revenues, the Tunisian central bank said.

Hotel occupancy rates have also fallen from 72.6 per cent in May 2010 to 44.9 per cent last month.

"The attack on the Bardo was hard enough, but this time tourists were killed on the beach," one French travel agent said.

World Tourism Organisation chief Taleb Rifai on Friday said the attacks targeted the livelihood of Tunisians, calling tourism "a lifeline for the economy".

Some locals say they do not expect tourists to return to the Mediterranean country.

"If I were in their shoes, I wouldn't set foot in Tunisia right now," shopkeeper Imed Triki said.

"After this catastrophe, it's normal that they leave the country so quickly. Do they come here on holiday or to die?"

Triki said he believes the Sousse attack happened because of the "chaotic situation" that followed the 2011 revolution which overthrew dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

"Look at how people behave on the streets, at the politicians on television and at civil servants. You'll see that nothing works in this country, not security, not the economy, not politics," he complained.

'IT'S LIKE A DESERT'

On any other day, Triki's shop would have been teeming with tourists.

"Since yesterday, it's been like a desert," he said.

"Tunisians aren't going to save the tourism season, and tourists will stay away for a very long time."

In the ancient medina or old town, which is usually bustling with activity, just a few foreigners were visiting souvenir and craft shops on Saturday.

"I only have three days left, and I've decided not to go to the beach just in case," said one British tourist who decided with her husband to stay on despite the tragedy.

"I want to finish my holidays despite phone calls and pressure from my family to go home."

Dozens of Tunisians flocked to Port el Kantaoui on Saturday to spend the day by the sea in a show of defiance.

But not a single foreign tourist could be seen among them.

"The few who remain are at their hotels. They don't want to go out unless it's to the airport," said Salem, who works at one hotel.

In the aftermath of Friday's attack, travel companies have been evacuating thousands of tourists.

Among them were British firms Thomson and First Choice, which said 10 flights were repatriating about 2,500 people on Saturday.