A seven-month extension of Tunisia’s state of emergency began last week, covering forthcoming elections and the summer tourist season. Against a backdrop of economic unrest and a threat from terrorist groups, what precautions should travel operators take?
Extension of state of emergency
A seven-month extension to the state of emergency in Tunisia became effective on 12 March. This is the longest extension to this state of emergency since it was introduced in 2015.
The extension covers local elections on 6 May, the first municipal elections since the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that led to the removal from office of authoritarian president Zine Abidine Ben Ali.
The poll takes place against a backdrop of simmering civil unrest in several governorates due to economic hardship. The government’s ban last week on unauthorised vending booths is likely to increase such unrest, as the informal economy is an important revenue stream for many Tunisians. Meanwhile, the decision by Moody’s rating agency last week to downgrade Tunisia’s credit rating will hit the country’s ability to borrow and likely add to economic woes.
Approach of Ramadan
In recent years, Islamist non-state armed groups have increased terrorist operations during the holy month of Ramadan, which this year is between 15 May and 14 June. In particular, Islamic State has interpreted religious demands on Muslims during Ramadan as a theological basis for encouraging acts of mass political violence.
In recent years, Islamist attacks have occurred during Ramadan in countries including Tunisia, France, the United States, Kuwait, Somalia and Bangladesh.
Last April, Tunisian security forces killed a senior commander of an Islamist group during a raid in the interior city of Sidi Bouzid against militants believed to be planning attacks during Ramadan.
Return of jihadists
Several thousand Tunisians travelled to fight for Islamic State and other extremist groups in Syria, Iraq and Libya. Following the collapse of the Islamic State caliphate late last year, many may have returned home, and it remains unclear how effectively they are being tracked by domestic security forces
Britain’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) warned against travel to Tunisia after an Islamic State gunman attacked the Riu Imperial Marhaba Hotel at the resort of Sousse on 26 June 2015, killing 38 people, including 30 British tourists. This attack came three months after 20 tourists died in an attack on the Bardo Museum in the capital Tunis.
Tunisia introduced the current state of emergency after an attack killed 12 presidential guards in the capital Tunis on 24 November 2015. Previous extensions have usually been for one or three months. Under the state of emergency, the interior minister is invested with powers to impose curfews, ban large gatherings and censor the media without judicial approval.
In July 2017, the FCO removed Tunisia from its no-go list, though it warns that while Tunisian security forces are better prepared to tackle terrorist threats than they were in 2015, ‘further attacks remain likely, including in places visited by foreigners such as tourist resorts’.
The FCO still warns against travel to the south and west of the country, including areas near the borders with Libya and Algeria.
U.K. tour operators resumed package holidays to Tunisia in 2018.
Against a backdrop of an extended state of emergency, a possible spike in terrorist violence during Ramadan and jihadists returning home, tour operators are advised to remain vigilant.
Travel agents and travel management companies should work closely with hotels and resorts to ensure crisis management plans are present, current and adequate.
Large operators should ensure that their security policies are adequate and are being observed by their partner hotels and resorts. Those that have not already done so should develop security metrics against which they assess hospitality venues and should consider contracting independent geopolitical analysis in order to inform them of emergent risks.
Operators should engage with local community, business and religious groups to develop positive community relations which encourage the sharing of information. They should also establish channels for whistleblowers.
Operators should brief clients on the extended emergency measures and advise them to follow the instructions of law enforcement officials.