“Agonizing question: do we cancel next month’s trip to Tunisia?” asked one would-be traveler in a tweet. “I’ve booked a holiday to Tunisia and just seen the news and very worried!!” another tweeted to a travel agency, following up later with, “please please let me cancel this holiday! I’m dreading it and don’t want to go!!”

In the wake of Wednesday's deadly attack at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis, cruise lines have canceled stops in Tunisia as travelers question whether they, too, should abandon plans to visit one of the few remaining popular destinations in North Africa. These moves add to mounting concerns that tourism, which is critical to the economies of Tunisia and other North African countries, will decline once again and jeopardize the business sector's hard-earned progress in recent years.

The shooting rampage at the Bardo museum, which left 23 dead and dozens injured, already appears to have dealt a blow to Tunisia’s tourism industry.

“This impact can last a very long time,” said Dr. Lynn Minnaert, a tourism scholar at New York University. “Many people are now booking for the summer or winter holidays,” she added, and with the shooting, they might opt to travel elsewhere if they had been considering Tunisia. She estimated that there would be at least a year of reduced interest in traveling to the country.

Tourism Matters

For Tunisia, along with other North African countries such as Egypt and Morocco, tourism has been a robust and economically vital industry. In 2009, 29.6 million tourists visited North Africa and spent $21.76 billion there, a report by the Africa Travel Association estimated. Visitors were predominantly European, and they could soak up the sun on Mediterranean beaches or see magnificent ancient ruins and wander through local souks [open-air marketplaces]. But after the political turmoil known as the Arab Spring began in late 2010, tourism plummeted.

In 2011, after popular protests ousted longstanding dictators in both countries, the number of tourists in Egypt dropped by a third and in Tunisia by nearly as much, compared to 2010, a Deutsche Bank report said. Morocco, which has been relatively unmarked by political instability, saw an 11 percent increase in tourist arrivals and Algeria an increase of 16 percent. Tourism in Libya was labeled nonapplicable.

Yet by 2013, Tunisia was showing signs of a comeback, with income from tourism approaching pre-Arab Spring levels. The total contribution of the industry to Tunisia’s economy was 15.2 percent of its gross domestic product that year, according to a report by the World Travel and Tourism Council. “Tourism is very important for the Tunisian economy,” Tourism Minister Jamel Gamra said at the time. “The sector has big potential."

Now, Wednesday’s deadly shooting could prove a major setback to the growth and promise of tourism, and not just in Tunisia.

“This attack was very much targeted at tourists,” Minnaert said. “That is new.” Rather than in areas with general conflict or political instability, “where a tourist happens to walk past and get killed, it was targeted at tourists themselves,” she added. “It sends a clear signal to tourism in the area.”

The impact of the attack could also reverberate far outside Tunisia, as any dangers, real or perceived, tend to, Minnaert added. She pointed to how fears of Ebola have hurt tourism in Tanzania and Kenya, which are both far from the West African countries that were most stricken by the virus. “For many people it all gets lumped together,” she said.

The economic consequences of the attack are potentially quite serious, Julia Devlin, a senior fellow in the global economy and development program at the Brookings Institution, said in an email. “Tourism is an important source of foreign exchange earnings and employment and is a highly vulnerable sector,” she said. 

For the Tunisian government, the attack’s link to the nation's vital tourism industry was clear. “All Tunisians should be united after this attack, which was aimed at destroying the Tunisian economy,” Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid said Wednesday in an address.

Travel Agencies Play It Safe

After Wednesday’s attack, cruise line Costa, which had three passengers killed and eight injured from one of its ships, said scheduled stops in Tunisia this year would be diverted. MCS Cruises, which had 12 passengers killed, announced Thursday it would cancel all stops in Tunisia in the summer. “Tunis is a key destination for MSC Cruises, and we hope to be able to restore it to itineraries in due course," MSC Cruises Executive Chairman Pierfrancesco Vago said in statement. "But until we receive the necessary reassurances that the security situation has returned to normal, we have to take our guests to alternative Mediterranean destinations."

Other tourism and travel agencies whose clients were not directly affected by the shooting were being cautious but not entirely ruling out Tunisia as of Thursday. “At the moment, they have canceled local excursions to Tunis for the foreseeable future,” Daisy Parker, a spokeswoman for ABTA, a British travel association, said of the group's agents and tour operators that currently have tourists in Tunisia. “It’s a developing situation, and it depends on what happens next,” she said, adding that generally British tourists were quite resilient but events like the shooting in Tunis “can make holidaymakers think about going to a destination.”

Every year, about 420,000 British nationals visit Tunisia annually, with the majority of them enjoying coastal resorts along its Mediterranean beaches, Parker said. Solely through ABTA operators, about 6,500 British nationals are currently in Tunisia, though primarily outside the capital, she said.

“As a precaution … we have canceled our excursion program in Tunisia for the coming days,” Thomson and First Choice, one of ABTA’s members, confirmed in a statement. “Tunisia remains a popular destination for us and customers are enjoying their holidays as usual,” it added.

Joel Zack, president of Heritage Tour Private Travel, which sells tours to Morocco, said that American interest in visiting Morocco did not appear to have waned following the Tunis attack. As of Thursday morning, his company had yet to receive any concerned phone calls regarding travel to Morocco.

“I don’t expect any cancelations," he added.