British tour operator Thomas Cook going bankrupt may not spell the end of tourism in Tunisia, but it highlights the need to diversify the key sector beyond all-inclusive beach holidays. The demise of the package holiday giant comes as Tunisia recovers from a three-year tourism lull after jihadist attacks in 2015 that killed tourists.
The attacks on a museum and beach resort killed 30 Britons among 38 foreign holiday makers, sending an industry that employed tens of thousands of people into a tailspin. But the sector has since rebounded on the back of improved security, with an expected record total of nine million visitors to the Mediterranean country for 2019.
Thomas Cook returned in force to Tunisia last year, before collapsing on Monday. The tour operator’s fallout has left some $66 million in hotel bills unpaid, according to initial estimates by the Tunisian Federation of hoteliers.
But federation head Khaled Fakhfakh said he did not think losses would severely impact a sector back on track eight years after an uprising toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. “Nationwide, tourism receipts have exceeded those for 2010,” a reference point in the industry, he said. “The losses won’t affect this performance.”
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‘We learnt to bounce back’
The bankruptcy is set to affect around 40 hotels, says Fakhfakh. But “I don’t think there will be any bankruptcies”, he said. An employee at a travel agency, who asked to remain anonymous, said tourism in Tunisia would recover.
“It will be tough, but not insurmountable,” the employee said. After the 2015 attacks, “for three years, Thomas Cook had more or less left the country but we learnt to bounce back.” This year, Thomas Cook had organised for 230,000 holidaymakers – around half from Britain – to visit Tunisia, the tourism ministry says.
That represented around 3.5 percent of all tourists to the country, and 5 percent of the European market. After the bankruptcy, some 10,000 holidaymakers – including 4,500 Britons – are slowly being flown home as their stays come to an end.
Britain and Belgium are repatriating their nationals, Tunisian authorities have said. Beyond unpaid bills, up to 40,000 trips planned for the rest of the year have been cancelled, the ministry says. The bankruptcy has thrown a Tunisian tourism agency that provided transport to Thomas Cook clients into turmoil.
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‘Tired’ tourism model
But in a country where three quarters of tourists are brought in by tour operators, the crisis has also renewed calls for the tourism sector – which accounts for around 7 percent of the GDP – to broaden its horizons.
Despite an increase in tourist arrivals, the sector remains fragile, with banking sources estimating its debt at $1.5 billion last year. “It’s a model that has started to tire,” tourism expert Hedi Hamdi said. “There needs to be a smooth transition” to a new model including attractive options for the younger generation, he said.
From booking a cheap flight and local transport to browsing accommodation and leisure options online, Tunisia is still struggling to provide for tourists who do not want to end up stuck in an organised holiday. Hoteliers have asked for a OpenSky accord to finally be signed with the European Union to allow low cost airlines to land in Tunisia.
The deal, which has been in the works for several years, would reduce dependency on flights chartered by tour operators. But it could also be a double-edged sword, warns Hamdi. “It could result in a new hegemony of companies such as Expedia or booking.com, who also have stringent demands,” he said, referring to the online booking platforms.
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