LA GOULETTE, Tunisia (AFP) - A celebratory band played as a cruise liner docked Thursday (Oct 6) in the port of Tunis for the first time since a March 2015 jihadist attack killed 21 tourists in the capital.
The German-operated MS Europa motored into La Goulette with some 310 passengers on board for a one-day stopover.
The tourists, cameras at the ready, were greeted by a band of soldiers playing trumpets and drums, as well as camels and North African dancing, and shopkeepers garlanded them with jasmine necklaces as they disembarked.
"It's huge for me to be reopening my shop and it warms my heart to see life return to the village," said 39-year-old Haifa Dargouth.
Tunisian authorities, who ordered high security for the visit, hope to lure back the big cruise operators who have abandoned the country for the past 18 months since the gun attack on the capital's Bardo National Museum.
"The arrival of the liner Europa does not in itself signal the resumption of cruise liner activities in Tunisia," said Malek Ghanemi, head of La Goulette's cruise liner terminal.
"But it's very important because it sends out a positive and reassuring message," he told AFP.
Salah Issa, a camel owner in his 40s who has been in tourism since he was 12 years old, was delighted to be back at work.
"This atmosphere is doing wonders for my morale," said Issa, as he welcomed tourists and let them sit on his camel's multicoloured saddle for free.
"I was rotting away in unemployment" after the Bardo attack. "My camels were going hungry." Gabriella, a tourist from Berlin, was all smiles as she headed off for Tunis medina, or old city, a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site.
"I'm not scared at all," she said.
Tourism Minister Selma Rekik Elloumi attended a special ceremony later Thursday, underlining the significance of the ship's stopover for a key sector of the Tunisian economy.
A Switzerland-based company is also planning a stop in Tunisia in January, she told AFP.
Many of the tourists who died in the March 18, 2015 attack claimed by the Islamic State jihadist group that also killed a policeman were on cruise stopovers.
Tunisia's tourism sector has been in crisis ever since the revolution of 2011 which led to the overthrow of longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The industry used to contribute around seven percent of GDP and supported 400,000 jobs.
Dozens of hotels were forced to close last winter following the Bardo attack and another in June 2015 around a beach hotel in Sousse that killed 38 foreign holidaymakers including 30 Britons.
Britain continues to advise its citizens against all but essential travel to most of Tunisia.
As incense filled the air around him, businessman Maher Lassoued breathed a sigh of relief.
"The Bardo attack completely destroyed me," said the 49-year-old, who returned to Tunisia to do business after the 2011 uprising, renting five shops in La Goulette.
"For the first time in my life, I was unemployed for more than a year and unable to pay what I owed." But he said the cruise ship docking in Tunis gave him renewed hope. "I'm breathing with both lungs again," he said.