Ben Ireland reports from the Royal Courts of Justice in London
Bargain basement prices on Tunisian holidays were hailed by tourism officials as ‘amazing results’ despite warnings from security experts before a terror attack that killed 38 people.
Thirty Britons were among the dead at the resort of Sousse after an Islamic State gunman opened fire with a Kalashnikov on the beach and in a Thomson-operated hotel.
But just weeks before the attack, officials were hailing the country’s tourist boom – fuelled by cheap package deals promoted despite the terror threat being set to “high” – as a success.
The figures were described in a government email (from the UK’s ambassador to Tunisia Hamish Cowell) ahead of the Sousse massacre as “amazing results” and the same email said “Post-Bardo package deals have never been so cheap.”
On March 18, 20 people were killed in what is claimed to be a related attack on the Bardo Museum in the Tunisian capital of Tunis.
A coroner’s inquest into the massacre was told today that Jennifer Anderson, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s head of counter terrorism, raised concern, about the security situation.
“Obviously, this is good for the Tunisian economy and those seeking cut-price package holidays but we, as counter terrorism and kill-joys, would say – the risk,” she said in correspondence.
Trade association Abta was consulted and the coroner was today shown an email that indicated the body’s concern for the future of Tunisian tourism, as well as evidence of cancellations by tourists from other countries such as Germany.
Abta raised issues with the wording in travel advice which said “possible further attacks are likely”. Its response said: “Our members will stand by and keep sending customers to Tunisia and not offer any cancellations”.
The number of British tourists in Tunisia rose by 20% in the first five months of 2015, compared to the same time a year previously. Meanwhile, the number of German tourists dropped 4.8% and the number of French tourists reduced by 19%.
A meeting on March 24, between the Bardo Museum and Sousse attacks, concluded that hotels must increase their own security measures in light of the increased security threat to tourist sites as Bardo was a “catalyst” for severe repercussions.
The inquest also heard that officials had met with tour operators on the ground in Tunisia in between the two attacks to observe security procedures.
They found there was an initial increase in security in the tourist areas following Bardo but “a lot of people” questioned whether that would be sustained.
The ambassador Hamish Cowell met with key tour operators “with a view to discussing travel advice” as well as hotel security.
But when allowed to set the agenda for a meeting, tour operators chose to discuss airport security, rather than that of hotels, the inquest heard.
Government memos shown in court showed the conclusion was that the advice at the time was “correctly pitched” and “gives a clear reflection of our current position”.
Poland upped the severity of its travel advice to warn residents against travelling to Tunisia in any case, but other countries such as France and Germany did not. “Other countries seem to be resisting a knee-jerk reaction,” internal government documents said.
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