Residents of popular resort town say deadly assault will be a death blow to country’s economic lifeline.
Sousse, Tunisia – Nejeh Amara, 45, stares into the distance from his white plastic chair in the shade of a palm tree. He sells ceramics and other souvenirs in Port El Kantaoui, a small harbour four kilometres from the hotel in Sousse where 38 European tourists were shot dead one month ago.
Tunisia’s tourism industry was already struggling after the March attack on the Bardo Museum in the capital, Tunis, which left 22 people dead.
But since the Sousse massacre, the country’s tourism industry has ground to a standstill.
Although Amara receives a 25 percent commission on every item he sells, he has not sold anything yet today – and he did not sell anything yesterday, either.
“I worry all day long,” he said, wiping the sweat from his forehead. “I’m afraid I’ll soon run out of money for groceries.”
Amara does not have any savings, because he usually earns enough during the summer months to support his wife and two children for the rest of the year. He has been doing this work since he was 16 years old.
“I can’t do anything else, and there are no other jobs around,” he added.
About 400,000 of Tunisia’s 10 million people work in the tourism industry, according to the Tunisian Ministry of Tourism. Including their families, about two million Tunisians are directly dependent on this sector.
Many others earn their living from tourism indirectly, like farmers who sell produce to hotels.
Last year, more than 14 percent of Tunisian gross domestic product (GDP) came from tourism.
The streets of Sousse and other popular Tunisian tourist locations are quiet now. So far in July, 70 percent fewer Europeans took holidays in Tunisia compared to July 2014, according to Tunisia’s Ministry of Tourism.
Only a few Algerians, Libyans, and Russians appear to be undeterred. A group of young Algerians on the beach say they feel perfectly safe here. “We’re used to attacks at home,” one of them shrugs.
But these tourists do not buy anything, the shopkeepers complain.
Almost all of the few Europeans who can be found in Sousse have family ties here. Michele Berteaux, 60, who is French, rents an apartment just around the corner from the Riu Merhaba Imperial Hotel where the attack took place.
Her daughter is married to a Tunisian, she explained as her grandson dozed in his buggy. “Look, this is where the terrorist was shot dead,” she said, pointing to bullet holes in the wall lining the street to where the beach attack took place.
She admitted that she had hesitated before deciding to visit Tunisia this time. “But we have attacks in France, too,” she noted.
At least 23 hotels in Tunisia have closed their doors since the Bardo attack, according to Radhouane Ben Salah, head of the Tunisian Federation of Hotels.
The closures have led to layoffs of around 2,400 hotel employees so far, according to Ministry of Tourism figures.
A small percentage of hotel employees who have permanent contracts receive a temporary allowance from the government, a measure that was enacted after the attacks.
The tourism sector is expected to suffer a loss of income that amounts to around $384m this year, and the country’s GDP is likely to grow by only one percent, the lowest since the 2011 toppling of long-time Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Tunisians were already suffering from rising costs of living and low salaries in recent years.
These economic woes have led young Tunisians like 24-year-old Kais Zaidi, a Sousse resident, to dream of trying their luck elsewhere.
“I want to leave this place. The doors here have all been closed,” said Zaidi, who spoke to Al Jazeera under a pseudonym. Today he and his two colleagues have sold one refrigerator magnet and a T-shirt for a total of about $8.
Zaidi has already tried twice to travel to Italy, but was stopped during his first attempt by the Tunisian coastguard. He tried once more and managed to reach the Italian coast. After two short days, however, he was sent home.
Now, Zaidi is determined to try again as soon as he has saved enough money to pay smugglers – which could be around $1,115. He used to be paid $165 a month, but his boss can now only afford $71. As a result, Zaidi said he will probably start selling drugs.
Zaidi alleged that several boys from his neighbourhood have joined the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, like the Sousse killer had.
“I don’t disapprove of fighting in Syria,” he explained while straightening his red cap, “but it doesn’t appeal to me. I personally hope for a better life in Europe. But what that terrorist did here is idiotic, because there is no war here. May he burn in hell.”
Meanwhile, Nawdel Dhifallah, 38, the manager of Le Soleil restaurant, was sitting on his empty terrace nearby. “If it continues like this, we’ll have to close in a few months,” he said. “We won’t be able to cover our costs.”
Employees and owners at other restaurants, hotels and shops already have outstanding payments in rent and utility bills, according to Dhifallah.
The Tunisian government is giving hotels an extension on their gas, water, and electricity costs, but not to restaurants or shops. “I don’t want to think about the future yet,” said Dhifallah.
He had asked the policemen to whom he serves free coffee every morning why it took them 40 minutes to kill the “terrorist”.
If it continues like this, we'll have to close in a few months. We won't be able to cover our costs.
“I’m not going to risk my life for a salary of 500 dinars [$252] a month,” one of them responded. He had been in Sousse when the attack began, but was reluctant to go to the scene of the shooting.
Another policeman said they had to wait for permission from their superior before they could act. Besides, they did not have the right equipment, like bulletproof vests and machine guns.
That has changed now.
Since the attack, bulletproof vests, machine guns, boats, and other vehicles have become more readily available to police forces. Patrols are more numerous on the streets as well.
“We had no experience with terrorism in Tunisia,” said Ministry of Tourism press attaché Zoubayer Jbali at his office in downtown Tunis. “But it’s true that security should have been improved more after the Bardo Museum attack.”
According to him, Tunisia’s tourist locations are safe now, after implementing measures like having armed policemen guard hotels and beaches.
The Tunisian government has been busy since the attack promoting the country to “new markets” in India, China and other countries in the region, Jbali explained.
The tourism minister has also been lobbying European governments, with a particular focus on the UK, to revoke travel warnings.
In the absence of foreign visitors, Tunisians are being encouraged to holiday in their own country.
Accountant Mohamed, 30, and bank employee Maryam, 28, sat on a lounger in front of the ClubHotel Riu Bellevue Park, next door to the Riu Merhaba Imperial Hotel where the attack took place.
Like the Riu Merhaba, their hotel currently has around 50 guests, compared to the many hundreds they are accustomed to hosting in July.
“At first I was afraid to come,” conceded Maryam. “Then I decided I should help my compatriots.”