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‘Tourism is dead in Tunisia’: Sousse massacre sends key industry reeling

Residents in Tunisia’s most popular resort town say attack will be a deathblow for the country’s tourism industry

SOUSSE, Tunisia — Latifa Alaouini gripped a tray of beers, sodas and coffees and told herself not to cry. The 43-year-old waitress marched across the marble floors of the Imperial Marhaba Hotel, weaving through crowds of frenzied journalists, stunned tourists, security officers and other hotel staff.

Alaouini had worked for 21 years at this luxury resort in Sousse, Tunisia’s most popular holiday town nestled against the Mediterranean. But she’d never expected this: a shooting on the beach; screams and terror as a gunman massacred 39 tourists and injured 39 more; all the guests shocked, leaving or worse, dead.

Seifeddine Rezgui, a 23-year-old aviation student from Kairouan, pulled a Kalashnikov out of an umbrella just before noon on the beach behind the Imperial Marhaba. He started shooting tourists by the sea, then entered the hotel’s outdoor pool area and continued killing inside the hotel. Police shot and killed Rezgui outside the Marhaba, then placed the hotel on lockdown as medics arrived.

“Terrorism is not Tunisia,” Alaouini said to a group of Germans, offering them drinks. “You are not only guests. You are my friends. We never support terror here, believe me.” The survivors had their bags packed. They’d wait in the lobby from noon to midnight, when they boarded buses for flights home.

Friday’s attack on Sousse’s tourist beach was the bloodiest in Tunisia’s recent history. It comes several months behind another massacre at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, where two gunmen killed 22 tourists. The two attacks are a deathblow to Tunisia’s tourism industry, which accounts for 14.9 percent of the country’s already struggling economy. They also raise questions about the infant democracy’s ability to protect its citizens, especially as Tunisia’s government struggles to balance security concerns with civil liberties in its fight against violent extremism.

Tunisian President Beiji Caid Essebsi came to the hotel within hours, condemning the massacre and promising a harsh security response. Prime Minister Habib Essid called the attack a “painful and wrenching blow” while Minister of Tourism Selma Elloumi declared it a “catastrophe.”

The government held an emergency conference after midnight and announced its response: comprehensive investigation of the incident, regulating or dissolving illegal groups that might be funding extremist activity, cracking down on suspected sleeper cells, heightening security at tourist sites, offering monetary reward for reporting on terrorism and closing at least 80 illegal mosques.

But many Tunisians are skeptical of the government’s promises, flooding social media with complaints that Essid’s measures are belated and ineffective. Many pointed out that similar rhetoric after the Bardo attack did not improve security. Some mocked Tunisia’s police as slow and more preoccupied with harassing those who aren’t fasting for Ramadan than with combating threats. “Instead of comforting Tunisians, the prime minister is comforting terrorists,” one Tweet said, responding to Essid’s admission that Tunisia’s security means are limited.

In Sousse, groups of Tunisians — no foreigners — returned to the beach, taking photos of the shooting sites, walking along the sea and crowding around hotel staff recounting what happened. “The Tunisian people are the first ones affected by this war, said Essebsi when he arrived, even though it was Tunisia’s guests that were targeted. But a strike against Tunisia’s tourists hurts Tunisians themselves.

“I live and breathe from tourism,” said 55-year-old Mohamed Ben Ameur, a 31-year employee of German travel group Touristik Union International (TUI), in the Imperial Marhaba lobby. “Now we have catastrophe. Tourism is dead in Tunisia. Forget it.”

The attackers’ intentions were clear, Ben Ameur said: Destroy the lifeline of hundreds and thousands of Tunisians, make the people poor and hungry and destabilize the state. “We Tunisians are all against terrorism,” Ben Ameur said. “But these people don’t believe in Tunisia. They want a caliphate, not a state.”

Across the hall, Alaouini had been working without pause. She set her tray down for just a few minutes. “These terrorists want Tunisia to end. They hate how Tunisia is special and different, how people here are aware and open, how we love our guests and our future.” The attackers had to be driven by politics, Alaouini said, but she didn’t know why or how to stop them. “I am really very upset. This hotel is my work and my home,” she said. “It’s not only my job, it’s all my life.”

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