Last updated: 05:55 PM ET, Sat June 27 2015

Over a Thousand Tourists Cut Sousse Vacations Short in Wake of Terrorist Attack

Impacting Travel | Michael Isenbek | June 27, 2015

Over a Thousand Tourists Cut Sousse Vacations Short in Wake of Terrorist Attack

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A tourist exodus has begun in the area of Sousse in Tunisia with vacationers numbering in the thousands making a swift exit the day after 38 were gunned down at that beachside resort town on Friday. A blow-by-blow account of the worst attack in the country’s history was first reported by TravelPulse’s Donald Wood.

An Associated Press report declared that the attacker’s actions, “sound(ed) the death knell for Tunisia's 2015 tourist season.”

According to the AP, Tunisian authorities identified the gunman as Seifeddine Rezgui, a 24-year-old Master's student at nearby Kairouan University.  

The final numbers of dead and wounded cross a range of nationalities. Of the 38 deceased, 15 were from Britain, with the rest hailing from Germany, Ireland, Belgium, and Portugal. The wounded included 24 British citizens, seven Tunisians, three Belgians, and a German, Russian and Ukrainian.

Mohammed Walid Ben Ghachem, manager of the Enfidha-Hammamet Airport near Sousse told the AP that countries in Europe as well as tour operators sent aircraft to evacuate their citizens. Ghachem said that by midday Saturday, 1,400 people had departed aboard nine flights.

The experience of British tourist Matthew Preece reflects what many went through as they hid from the gunman while he murdered fellow vacationers. "It's the first time I've ever been on holiday and feared for my life," Preece told the AP, mentioning that it was his third time visit to Tunisia and probably his last. "So obviously you can't come back somewhere it's not safe."

The Imperial Marhaba Hotel, site of the attack, sits essentially vacant, according to manager Mohammed Becheur. "We may have zero clients today, but we will keep our staff," he said, pointing out sadly the 75-percent occupancy rate the day before. "This summer will be hard, but we are very confident for the long term."

On the beach, a few tourists from adjacent hotels remained, some laying flowers where the tourists were killed, amid police patrols on horseback and boat.

This increased police presence may be the future for Tunisian tourist areas, as the AP said Prime Minister Habib Essid implemented a number of new security measures a short time after this latest incident. Of course, the specter of the last tourist attack in Tunisia still looms, which occurred at the National Bardo Museum in March, killing 22. The AP points out that some question why these measures weren’t put in place after March’s attack.

"It's clear that the government's security policy requires a massive revision, in the sense that most of the tourist sites weren't well-protected," Tunisian security analyst Alaya Allani said to the AP. "If the measures announced are well implemented, we could reduce but not eradicate terrorism."

The AP said Essid called up army reserves, which would allow for armed men to be present in hotels and at tourist sites. He also promised to crack down on extremism.

North Africa analyst Geoff Porter asserted to the AP that this militarization of tourist areas would discourage vacationers from putting Tunisia on their itineraries.

"Tunisia's in a difficult position, you can harden a tourist site and make it more difficult to attack but the same measures would deter tourists," Porter said. "Tourists don't want to come and lie on a beach with guys with AK-47s."

Already struggling after Arab Spring-related unrest, these latest incidences could not have come at a worse time for Tunisia. Tourism made up almost 15 percent of Tunisia’s gross domestic product in 2014, and in Sousse, and similar coastal resort areas around the country, it is the primary moneymaker, according to the AP.

The radical Islamic State group, of which thousands of Tunisians are members, has claimed responsibility for the attack, the AP said. On the same day, deadly violence also broke out in Kuwait and France.

There are flashes of hope for Tunisia tourism, seen in the vacationers that remain in even after the attack. "We want to see our holiday out," said Peter Phillips of Wales to the AP as he stood on the beach not far from the attack’s location.

A revival in tourism could depend on preventing more attacks. But even as Tunisian senior security official Rafik Chelli calls the Sousse attack an "isolated incident," difficult to prevent, that could happen anywhere, North African analyst Porter is far more pessimistic. He told the AP, "It is hard to envision Tunisian tourism recovering from this attack and impossible to envision it recovering from a third one."

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