Cliffside villages. Breathtaking souqs. The ruins of ancient Carthage.
These are some of the sights thousands of tourists waved goodbye to as they packed up to leave Tunisia on Friday, hours after the United Kingdom warned that another terrorist attack was “highly likely,” accelerating British evacuation efforts and singeing diplomatic relations with the country.
Millions of tourists have long flocked to the North African nation, citing its “sun, sand, and sea” and “affordable luxuries.” Alongside the Libyans, French, Algerians, and Germans, Britons compose one of the largest groups, with somewhere between 200,000 to 400,000 visiting each year, according to the National Office of Tunisian Tourism.
It is not nearly as popular with American tourists, who come in numbers ranging from 10 to 20 thousand.
Dangers of the Arab Spring a few years ago led to a temporary dry-out for Tunisia’s tourism industry, but 2013 saw a record surge in British visitors in particular, Tunisia’s tourism board told The Daily Mail. Travelers in March were also shaken by an attack on the prestigious National Bardo Museum that left 22 people – mostly foreigners – dead.
But that didn’t stop at least 3,000 Britons there this week on package holidays, according to The Independent.
Tour companies had already been making plans to airlift its customers and staff back home since an alleged Islamic State gunman killed 38 tourists at a beach resort in Sousse two weeks ago. Of the victims, 30 hailed from the UK, making it the largest loss of British lives in such an attack since London’s 7/7 bombings.
But on Saturday, President Beji Caid Essebsi declared an official state of emergency, expanding the military’s scope of operations and banning large public assemblies.
Later in the week, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond announced: “Since the attack in Sousse, the intelligence and threat picture has developed considerably, leading us to the view that a further terrorist attack is highly likely,”
Some tourists said they were angry to have their vacations cut short. “It’s a disgrace,” Tracey Caburn said to The Mirror upon arriving back in the UK. “We got called last night at 11.30 p.m. saying they wanted everybody out.”
“I feel safer here than I ever have in London,” declared Myles Roberts, who was also on holiday in Tunisia, to The Mirror. “There are nine security guards with machine guns around my hotel, there’s a speedboat patrolling up and down with a machine gun on that too.”
The warning also raised tensions between the UK and Tunisia, whose ambassador to London Nabil Ammar warned British parliament Thursday that repercussions were in store, reported The Guardian.
“This is what the terrorists want,” Mr. Ammar told the BBC on Thursday. He lamented the economic damage inflicted to the tourism sector, adding that it wouldn’t be contained to those businesses alone. “So many sectors are linked. It’s not 7 percent of the GDP only. It’s because it’s linked to so many other sectors – transport, health services, whatever. So all those services will be hit.”
But Tunisia’s Prime Minister Habib Essid adopted a more pacifying tone, declaring that the country would do everything possible to protect British interests, reported Reuters. He added that he would call UK Prime Minister David Cameron to personally offer assurances on the safety of tourists.
Travelers like Mr. Roberts are waiting. Once the travel warning changes, he will return to Tunisia, he told The Mirror.