Salma Elloumi Rekik, the Tunisian Minister of Tourism, in an exclusive interview with Correspondents, said the tourism sector would incur significant losses following the June 26 terrorist attack on the tourist sea resort in Sousse that left 38 tourists dead.

Salma Elloumi Rekik, the Tunisian Minister of Tourism, in an exclusive interview with Correspondents, said the tourism sector would incur significant losses following the June 26 terrorist attack on the tourist sea resort in Sousse that left 38 tourists dead.

Rekik estimated that the attack could cost the coastal city of Sousse one billion dinars (USD $500 million) in losses. Still, Rekik said she is optimistic that the tourism sector will be able to recover and that the government was creating important measures to support Tunisian hospitality and to protect tourists by signing agreements with European countries in the security field.

Salma Rekik, are there any procedures being taken to protect tourists against similar attacks during the remaining part of the tourism season?

The Ministry of Interior has made some decision that will be soon activated, such as the arming of tourism security agents deployed at beaches and in hotels, as well as at beach entrances. It will be up to the owners of these hotels to decide where to deploy these agents. This is a very important step because it will provide tourists and the hotels with needed protection. The events at Sousse would not have happened if there had been (armed) security agents – perhaps things would have been handled in the first seconds by shooting the terrorist and thwarting his plan.

Is the arming of the tourism security personnel alone enough to protect tourists in Tunisia?

There is the tourist security, which is under the supervision of the tourism ministry and there are the security men who are under the supervision of the interior ministry; they are working together to provide the needed protection. Now, we are putting more effort in training them and making them more informed, in order to increase their capacities in dealing with such terrorist attacks. Things will not stop by deploying more security forces. We will train them and improve their capacities because the situation today, from a security perspective, has changed and we should be alerted in order to avoid similar events, God willing. 

The Sousse attack followed the Bardo terrorist attack and it was more serious and brought more losses.  Why didn’t the government learn the lesson?

The blow of Sousse has its own specificity. This young man came to the beach wearing clothes similar to those worn by vacationers and he looked like he wanted to swim.  Nothing in his behaviour indicated that he was a terrorist or that any special attention could be drawn to him. He had a tattoo on his shoulder and he was wearing a necklace. His hair was long and he did not have a beard. According to information collected, he was a fan of dancing and during vacations he used to work on the revitalisation of tourism in the city of Sousse. For this reason, his face was familiar to many people working in this sector.

Now, as terrorists have developed their methods and are becoming proficient in disguising themselves, we should take all of this into consideration in order to develop our work.  These are unfamiliar events for us and we don’t have lots of experience in this field. This is a very serious phenomenon, which is posing a challenge to many countries in the world, even those that have more capacities than ours.   

Don’t you think that the government was lenient in the way it dealt with the issue of protecting tourists after the Bardo incident?  

The conditions in the country are very difficult. After the incident at Bardo, we, as a government, did not expect events of Sousse at all. This incident is the biggest catastrophe suffered by the tourism sector and in the history of the country as a whole. Although it is a very severe blow, we are determined to overcome it and we will take all necessary precautions in the future. 

After the Sousse attack, many trips were cancelled and the tourist season has reached a tipping point.  Did you receive any international support to save the tourist season?

Yes, many European countries have offered to help us such as France, Germany and Britain. There are also other countries that have decided not to put Tunisia on the list of dangerous countries and to keep its classification on the same tourist destination level. For us, this is a very positive step. Moreover, there are agreements signed in the field of security cooperation and for this reason the interior ministers of Britain, Germany and France came to Tunisia.

What are your expectations about the initial losses that may be incurred by the tourism sector after the cancellation of a number of bookings?

The tourism sector has been in a crisis for more than 10 years. After the 2011 revolution, it was on the verge of collapsing because of the unrest and there were other situations that negatively impacted this sector, such as the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris and then came the blows of Bardo and Sousse. 

Thus we are expecting huge losses that could reach up to one billion dinars but these are mere speculations.   

What are the new measures being taken to avoid the risk of the closure of some hotels and of laying off their workers?

First, we are asking Tunisians here and those living abroad to show solidarity. We are also asking our Algerian brothers and the Moroccans to come to Tunisia. We are going to offer them a number of privileges related to hotel and transportation rates. These are some of the steps that we are working on now in order to save the tourist season.

We also decided to take a number of other procedures such as delaying the payments of debt instalments, rescheduling them according to the capacities of the different institutions and to giving new loans that are repayable over seven years, with a two-years grace period to finance the activities of the tourism enterprises during the 2015 -2016 seasons.  There are also other special procedures which we have swiftly announced in order to save the tourism season and avoid the closure of some of the hotels and laying off of their workers.  

After the attack on Bardo and Sousse, there were calls on social networking sites for your dismissal from your position. Did you already think of resigning?

I did not hear about these calls and I prefer not to comment on this topic.

Is Tunisia capable of overcoming this blow?  

Tunisia will be able to overcome this blow but it will face some difficulties in the tourism sector. Things will not be easy and we will need some time because the country is facing many difficulties. This government is working under difficult conditions and there is a  lot of political tension as well as a decline in the state revenues from many sectors, especially the phosphate sector.

I believe that we need national unity more than ever and everyone should come to work because if we don’t come together to support Tunisia, everyone will lose.