Thomas Cook, one of Europe’s biggest tour operators, has resumed holidays to Tunisia for the first time since a terrorist attack on the popular resort of Sousse left 38 dead, including 30 Britons.
The attack in June 2015 prompted the Foreign Office (FCO) to advise against essential travel to the north African country, all but removing British tourists from the beach resorts that dot its Mediterranean coast.
But today, more than six months after the FCO lifted its ban, Thomas Cook will return, beginning with flights to Enfidha from Birmingham, Manchester and London Gatwick. Services from Glasgow, Newcastle and Stansted will follow in the spring.
A spokesperson for the tour operator said the first trips were fully booked, with all-inclusive seven-night holidays starting from just £306 per person. Customers can currently choose from 10 hotels in the region, rising to 14 in the summer.
However, it expects only a quarter of the volume of holidaymakers it welcomed in 2014. “We’re starting in just a few resorts, mainly near Hammamet where we are confident we can offer the high quality our customers expect,” said Carol MacKenzie, head of customer welfare. “Since Tunisia closed to British holidaymakers three years ago, we’ve had lots of customers asking us when the country will be back on sale. It attracts lots of loyal visitors.”
Tour operator Tui, Europe’s largest, will resume trips from the UK to Tunisia in May.
Have Tunisian resorts improved security?
“[Since the Sousse attack] the Tunisian government has worked to improve its security and the way its police and security teams can respond to terrorist incidents,” MacKenzie said.
“It is this work which meant that the UK government were able to announce that they are not satisfied that British travellers can return to the country.”
The FCO says that Tunisian security forces, which came under criticism in the wake of the attack for responding too slowly, have “improved and are better prepared to tackle terrorist threats”.
MacKenzie said that when she visited last year she noticed an increased security presence on hotel beaches, and said hotels and police were working more closely.
Is all of Tunisia safe?
No – the Foreign Office still advises against travel to much of southern and western Tunisia, especially where the country borders Libya.
It advises against all travel to:
- The Chaambi Mountains National Park and the designated military operations zones of Mount Salloum, Mount Sammamma and Mount Mghila
- The militarised zone south of the towns of El Borma and Dhehiba
- Within 20km of the rest of the Libya border area north of Dhehiba
- The town of Ben Guerdane and immediate surrounding area
The FCO advises against all but essential travel to:
- Areas south of, and including, the towns of Nefta, Douz, Médenine, Zarzis
- Within 30km of the border with Algeria south of, and including, the town of Jendouba (this area includes the archaeological sites of Bulla Regia and Chemtou)
- The governorate of Kasserine, including the town of Sbeitla
It warns that there is a heightened risk of terrorism against aviation, which is why additional security measures have been put in place restricting electronic devices on board.
A state of emergency remains in place in the country, imposed in 2015 and since extended a number of times. It was most recently extended last week.
The FCO says: “Terrorists are still very likely to try to carry out attacks in Tunisia. Security forces remain on a high state of alert in Tunis and other places. You should be vigilant at all times, including around religious sites and festivals.”
The main terror threat comes from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Libya-based extremists with links to Isis.
Has Tunisia's tourism industry been suffering?
Yes, and especially in terms of British visitors, though other European countries have continued to offer flights and packages over the past two years.
Arrivals in the immediate aftermath of the attack fell heavily. Figures from the country’s Ministry of Tourism showed that in the first half of 2016, visitors were down 25 per cent to 4.3 million, crippling one of the nation’s biggest GDP contributors.
However, at the end of last year, the industry was showing signs of growth as French and German tourists returned. The number of Algerian holidaymakers visiting also soared.
Foreign arrivals to the country rose by 23 per cent in 2017, compared with the previous year, with just under seven million tourists visiting.
Why go to Tunisia?
Aside from the winter sun, sandy beaches and exceptional value, Tunisia offers a wealth of cultural and archeaological draws.
Chris Leadbeater, who visited for Telegraph Travel in November, found a country primed for the return of British tourists, especially when it comes to visiting the majestic amphitheatre of El Djem.
“To cross its threshold is to tumble into the third century – into the din of gladiatorial sword-clash and the roar of lions in holding pens,” he wrote. “Three tiers of seats rise, and you can still go up, upon stairs that have sustained a million footsteps, to the top level, and peer down in awe. Again, I do this with little company – there are maybe 20 other visitors on a warm morning. I cast my mind back to my last trip to Rome, to the queues at the Colosseum – to the postcard touts and the thrust of selfie-sticks – and whisper to myself the sacrilege that, for breathless glimpses of the stadiums of ancient times, El Djem might well be the superior location.”
Five reasons to visit Tunisia
1. Amphitheatre of El Jem
One of the largest and best-preserved Roman amphitheatres in the world, this Unesco World Heritage Site was built around 238AD and had room for 35,000 people. It featured in films including Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Gladiator.
The Carthaginians ruled much of the Mediterranean from the 6th century BC until 146 BC, when its capital was destroyed by Rome. A second – Roman – Carthage was built in its place, the remains of which can still be seen.
The country’s capital offers “laid-back atmosphere, blazing blue skies, glittering views of the sea, harissa, fish couscous and shisha smoking,” said Rosemary Behan, writing for Telegraph Travel in 2008. Its medina is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
4. Sidi Bou Saïd
One of the most beautiful villages in the Mediterranean, around 15 miles from Tunis. With its cobbled streets and blue-and-white-painted houses, it could have been airlifted straight from a Greek island.
5. Sfax and Kerkennah
Sfax, Tunisia's second city, has a bustling medina and is a good base for exploring the Kerkennah Islands, a low-key beach holiday option.
Is the Foreign Office going to lift its restrictions to Sharm el-Sheikh?
Egypt’s fortunes seemed to mirror Tunisia’s after the downing of a passenger jet shortly after it left Sharm el-Sheikh’s airport in October 2015.
The Egyptian government has invested heavily in improving security at Sharm el-Sheikh, once the country’s holiday stalwart, but last year began to market other areas of the country, seemingly giving up hope on the FCO ever lifting their restrictions on flying to the resort.
Tourism minister Mohamed Yehia Rashed told Telegraph Travel that “the lights have not switched off in Sharm el-Sheikh” but that its marketing strategy needed to “evolve” should the flight ban remain in place.