THE BLOG
10/09/2015 12:25 BST | Updated 10/09/2016 06:12 BST

Tunisia: Lifting a 'Tourism Ban' and Supporting a Democracy

The promises of the Arab Spring have proven hollow across most of the Middle East and North Africa, with one notable exception, Tunisia. This historically rich country has emerged as a democratic, pluralist, secular state, with a strong government and moderate social and religious attitudes.

This makes the brutal attack at Sousse in June this year all the more tragic. This was not only an attack on western tourists, or an attack on the tourism sector; this was an attack on democracy and freedom in Tunisia.

Last week I visited this country to determine what changes have been made to security, following the United Kingdom's decision to advise against 'all but essential travel' to the country. This friendly country in North Africa, and its people, are now paying a significant price, and we should urgently review our approach to this young democracy.

Tourism

Prior to the attacks in Sousse, tourism had been one of Tunisia's greatest success stories, constituting 12-15% of the Tunisian economy and over 10% of total employment. 440,000 British tourists alone visited last year, and this year Britain overtook the Germans in the number of tourists visiting the country.

After the travel ban was implemented, 300,000 tourists due to travel to the country immediately cancelled their visits. In the last two months, five hotels have already closed and 20,000 Tunisians have lost their jobs. Formerly popular and busy tourist areas are now ghost towns.

The hotel staff I spoke to during my visit all told me that their quiet, half empty hotels (in the first days of September), would have been packed this time last year. All are nervous for their long term future. Many fear that Tunisia faces a collapse of the tourism industry. This is a serious concern. The Minister for Tourism, Salma Elloumi Rekik, has said that "If tourism collapses.. the economy falls apart."

It is absolutely clear that this is what the attackers wanted to happen. The Minister for Health, Said Aidi, worked tirelessly after the attacks with British authorities, and he has been clear that the terrorist's intention was to isolate Tunisia, to ensure Western tourists do not want to come.

This is why a Tunisian delegation came to Parliament on the 20th July, led by the Speaker Mohamed Ennaceur and Ms Rekik, asking that the tourism ban be lifted.

Sousse

In the Imperial Marhaba hotel, where the attack took place, this reality is all too clear. A hotel able to hold 650 guests currently has only 11.

What happened on that day reveals the brutal lengths these extremist groups will go to further their aims, from how close the attacker was to his victims, to how he shot elderly guests unable to run, to the manner in which he chose his western victims.

Today, the hotel has been provided armed police by the government, but at the time of the attack it had only unarmed civil security.

A 'Family Tragedy'

Despite the tragedy, two Belgian tourists, Nadine and Mark, have returned to the hotel for the 37th time. They were on the beach on the day of the attack, and when the first shots were fired they took other guests with them to safety.

They have returned to support the hotel and Tunisia. Mark explained that were it not for the heroics of the staff, at least 10 more guests would have died. The staff hid guests, and even linked arms to form a barrier between them and the terrorist.

It is moving to hear genuine compassion and distress amongst the staff. From the hotel owner to a waiter, the attack is referred to as a 'family tragedy'. The victims came here regularly, some up to 3 times a year, and the staff knew them well.

The owner of the hotel, Zohra Driss, was tearful as she explained how difficult it has been for everyone in the hotel to process what happened on that day. However, she also explains that the ban on tourists is contributing to their continued nightmare.

The Imperial Marhaba has already lost 60 of its formerly 200 staff. It will struggle to survive this winter, when many hotels will certainly shut down along with tens of secondary businesses. She fears the resulting unemployment and poverty will only fuel the growth of extremism.

Common amongst the views of the Security Minister, Health Minister, Tourism Minister, Zohra Driss and others, is anguish that one man was able to destroy the tourism industry, undermine the entire economy and unravel all confidence in Tunisian security - in only 5 minutes.

This is the context in which we find the United Kingdom deciding what to do in Tunisia. Clearly the tourism ban is causing severe harm for the Tunisian economy and feeds into the terrorists' goals, but unless we feel our citizens will be safe, how are we to change our tourist advice?

Security

The good news is that the Tunisian authorities are focused and cooperative in addressing their security deficits. They want our assistance in strengthening their security, and the equally good news is that the UK is willing to provide them support.

Rafik Chelli, the Security of State for Security Affairs, has made clear that Tunisian authorities are working very closely with UK, US, French and other western governments to identify necessary counter-terrorism measures, such as the protection of tourist zones. He describes the threat of terror within Tunisia as manageable, and that they have a very good understanding of the risks and preventative measures which must be taken.

For our part, David Cameron has said that the UK has boosted its cooperation with Tunisia, including assistance in strategic reform of the Interior Ministry, counter-IED capacity building and strategic communications. These are good early steps.

You can see the immediate changes to security in tourist zones, where the government has provided hotels with armed police officers. Many hotels have also taken further measures, such as sophisticated CCTV networks. The British Ambassador to Tunisia, Hamish Cowell, speaks highly of the commitment of the Tunisian officials he has worked with on these issues. There is no doubt that tourists are far better protected.

It will be up to the British government to decide whether or not these changes are sufficient, but this seems to be more of a 'when' than it is an 'if'. Tunisia desperately needs the tourism ban to be lifted, and we must do more to help them improve their security sufficiently.

Going Further

One of the strongest British brands around the world is the quality of our policing. We can help to improve the capacity in the Tunisian security forces, not only sophisticated intelligence and anti-terrorism units, but in the lower ranks, who will be the first response to a future attack.

We have established the College of Policing, which could serve as the ideal centre for training and cooperation with the Tunisian authorities. Similarly, the Metropolitan Police have expertise which would be transferrable and warmly welcomed.

Attacks on tourists are now a clear strategy for Jihadist groups, and we must ensure effective security measures are not reserved for Tunisia alone. We need to review security in popular tourist destinations such as Morocco and Dubai, a failure to do so would be simply inexcusable.

We missed our opportunity to take these steps early enough in Tunisia, which should have been implemented after the attack on the Bardo Musuem, two months before the Sousse massacre, where 20 foreign tourists and 2 innocent Tunisians were killed. You do not get a second chance to prevent future atrocities.

Libya

There is an elephant in the room when discussing security in Tunisia.

An alliance between terrorists and smugglers in neighbouring Libya has made it difficult for authorities to prevent the transfer of weapons, equipment and terrorists themselves. The beach attacker in Sousse, Seifeddine Rezgui, was trained in Libya, along with the two perpetrators of an attack on the Bardo Museum.

We need to push for a solution in Libya, not only for Tunisia, but in the interests of European security as well. Anarchy there allows groups such as Boko Harem, Ansar al-Sharia, Al Qaeda-linked groups and Daesh to grow in influence. It is also where 92% of migrants are leaving from to cross the Mediterranean to Italy. We need to bring all sides to the table and forge a political settlement.

In the meantime, Tunisia needs assistance in managing its 400km, porous border. This assistance could range from sophisticated equipment to IT systems and training of border staff. The UK is in a position to provide this assistance.

Unity with a New North Africa

When looking at the severe damage Tunisia has suffered over the last several months, it is difficult to shake the fear that the terrorists have already won, in driving out Westerners and irreparably damaging Tunisian tourism.

We cannot allow that to be true. If Daesh want to break down the bridges built between our nations, we will make them stronger. If they want to isolate Tunisia from Europe, we will offer them unity. If they try to launch further attacks of terror, we will stop them.

The Tunisian government seeks a stronger relationship with the UK and we should reciprocate. You only have one chance to keep a young democracy on the right path. After the events of the last few months, Tunisia needs friends, we should offer that friendship and work urgently to get the ban lifted.

Only with the return of tourists to a safe, prosperous Tunisia, will we deny the likes of Daesh any semblance of victory.