Travel, Tunisia, tourism, terrorism and tragedy.

I was really shocked by the news of the terrorist attack at the Bardo museum in Tunis last week – I was in Tunis just 6 months ago and just a few weeks ago, another very good friend from Singapore also visited Tunis. We both enjoyed Tunisia a lot despite some misgivings about the country and we were both deeply saddened by the news of the terrorist attack. After all, all, we both did enjoy Tunisia and were encouraging our friends to visit this beautiful country. This terrorist attack probably signals another nail in the coffin for the Tunisian tourism industry as few people would dare to visit Tunisia in the near future – those who still go would probably think twice before venturing beyond the gates of their luxury holiday resort.

In Kairouan, Tunisia last September

The terrorists deliberately targeted foreign tourists in one of Tunisia’s most popular tourist destinations – the Bardo Museum. In doing so, they wanted to cut off one of the lifelines to Tunisia: tourism. The tourism industry is so vital to Tunisia as foreign tourists bring hard cash and create many jobs. What will happen to the people who depend on tourism to make a living after this attack? When will the tourists return to Tunisia? How long will it be before the horrors of the Bardo attack start to fade in the minds of future visitors? Actually, this wasn’t the first terrorist attack targeting foreign tourists in Tunisia: back in 2002, a bomb went off on the island of Djerba, killing 14 Germans, 3 Tunisians and 2 French nationals. Was I aware of the 2002 terrorist attack in Djerba before going to Tunisia? Yes I was. Did it put me off? No, because it was a rather long time ago and I wasn’t going to Djerba on my trip.

I know what my parents would say, they would probably tell me that they were right to have cautioned me against traveling to North Africa – that it probably wasn’t as safe as I thought. I hate to admit this but they were probably right. After all, I did stick out like a sore thumb anywhere I went in Tunisia as I was so clearly a foreigner. I wasn’t white, Arab or African – I clearly look Chinese and there are virtually no Asian people in Tunisia at all. I traveled around independently, using public transport a lot and wasn’t afraid to chat to the locals given that I speak French fluently and can speak some Arabic. But was I over confident, was I possibly putting myself in more harm than I had imagined? Could I have been robbed or kidnapped wandering around North Africa like this? Or was I probably safe and okay?

In El Jem, Tunisia with a camel

There needs to be some common sense applied here – you can never be completely safe in any big city. London, Oslo, Madrid, New York, most recently in Paris and even Tokyo have all had their share of terrorist attacks over the years. However, whilst terrorist attacks like that are scary and make the headlines, I think we should be far more concerned about far more mundane issues when traveling. The chances of us encountering a major terrorist incident is probably extremely low – however, when I was in Hanoi, I felt the need to pray (and I’m a committed atheist) each time I tried to cross the road because of the chaotic traffic. Whilst I found Sri Lanka totally fascinating, I suffered from such severe food poisoning in Nuwara Eliya. And my regular readers will know that I love skiing, but I have actually seen people get really badly injured whilst skiing before. So you can quite easily get injured or even killed abroad without actually encountering a single terrorist – it is not just terrorism you should be worried about.

So let’s try to worry about the things we do have control about – the recent Air Asia Flight QZ8501 crash is indeed very tragic and may have put some of you off Air Asia altogether, but statistically, there have been plenty of Air Asia flights every day all over Asia and the chances of your plane crashing are actually pretty remote. If you’re traveling in Indonesia, you’re far more likely to get involved in a traffic accident given how chaotic the traffic can be in Indonesian cities. Now you can mitigate that risk by choosing to employ the services of a driver rather than rent a car, as driving a rental car in Indonesia is far riskier than say in Singapore or Malaysia. Likewise, you may hear of horror stories about tourists being robbed at gunpoint, but a lot of that risk can be mitigated by avoiding unsafe neighbourhoods, never getting drunk or making sure you are not wandering around alone at night. A little bit of common sense goes a very long way when you’re traveling through a country like Tunisia.

In the capital city Tunis

And yes, we cannot avoid the fact that some countries are just not safe to visit. I usually would refer to the UK government’s foreign office advice to travelers. Nonetheless, the Bardo museum attack occurred in the city of Tunis – an area that the website claimed was safe to visit, whilst other parts of Tunisia were deemed unsafe to visit. Nonetheless, even if I were to return to Tunisia this week, I would be far more worried about pickpockets, delayed trains and food poisoning, rather than terrorists trying to blow me up. The fact is Tunis is a big city with 2.7 million people and life does go on for them in spite of the terrorist attacks and the locals are doing everything they can to get back to normality. The only countries where I would really avoid are those where there is a war going on – this could either be a cross-border conflict as in the case of Eastern Ukraine or it could be a civil war, as in the case of Syria. And then there are failed states with a weak government which has descended into chaos, as in the case of Iraq, Libya and Somalia.

The strength of a country’s government is probably one of the most important factors determining how safe the country is: after all, countries with a well funded, well organized police and military are going to be far more efficient when it comes to law and order than poorer countries whose resources are overstretched and are unable to cope with a crisis. So even if you do encounter a terrorist attack or an earthquake in a country like Japan or Australia, you know that the authorities there will be able to harness whatever resources they need to deal with the problem at hand because these are very rich countries. But if you get caught up in a crisis in rural Mauritania or Afghanistan like a military coup or flood, then good luck to you.

Amongst the ruins in Carthage

This is why terrorist cells tend to flourish in such countries with weak and ineffective governments. Anyone planning a terrorist attack in America would have to evade the attention o the CIA or FBI – not an easy task because the US government do have the resources to keep America safe. Likewise, in the UK, the security services have foiled many terror plots before they came to fruition. That is why the terrorist cells like ISIS, Al-Aqaeda and Boko Haram flourish in rural areas in countries like Afghanistan, Yemen, Northern Nigeria, North-Western Pakistan, Northern Mali, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and other countries where the government are ineffective in dealing with the threats of such terror groups. this creates an environment where the terror groups are free to recruit, train, plan and do whatever they want. Any tourist who goes to such countries would be clearly making an easy target of themselves. This is why anyone who does travel to such areas are usually suspected of having intentions of becoming terrorists.

There is always a compromise to be struck between traveling to safer countries and looking for bargains – the most stable countries are often more expensive tourist destinations. If money wasn’t a problem, I would love to take an extended holiday in Japan and South Korea this year, but unfortunately I simply cannot afford it. With some of the countries I have visited have not been as safe as I would have liked, I have been able to find some pretty great bargains in places like Sri Lanka to Morocco to Romania because of the exchange rate. Besides, think about the adventures I would have missed out on over the years had I been too nervous to visit these countries. Isn’t that the whole reason why we travel – to search for new experiences that we would not otherwise be able to encounter in our home countries?

In Sidi Bou Said, the white village

Finally, when would it be safe to travel to Tunisia again? To be honest, I don’t know – there can never be a simple answer for a question like that. Some may say that lightning never strikes the same spot twice, given the heightened security after this atrocious attack at the Bardo museum, this is probably an extremely safe time to visit Tunis because the authorities would be extra vigilant. Others may argue that this terror attack is a symptom of the instability in Tunisia and how the authorities are struggling to hold together a fragile peace since the Jasmine revolution in 2011. Then there are others who may say that it would be too soon to jump to any conclusions and would rather adopt a ‘wait and see’ attitude over the next few weeks or months to see how things develop in Tunisia before rushing to judgement. The proof is in the pudding: with the long Easter holidays in Europe coming up in the first week of April, will the tourists stay away from Tunisia?

So that’s it for me from now on this topic. Have you ever traveled to a country which was somewhat unsafe? Have you ever had a close brush with danger? Or are you a cautious traveler who sticks to more conventional destinations? Do let me know what your thoughts are on this issue. Many thanks for reading.

In the ancient Colosseum of El Jem

 

Leave a Reply

Related Posts