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Tunisia beach attack verdict – what it means for holidays

Robin Bowman

Robin Bowman
Feb 28, 2017

The tragic and horrific events that unfolded on a Tunisian beach in June 2015 took 38 lives, 30 of them Britons.

The appalling scenes of carnage wrought by Islamist extremists not only took all those lives, it devastated those of the victims’ loved ones and friends.

It also sent shock waves through the travel industry.

The effect on the Tunisian tourism industry, as with other popular destinations that have been targeted by religious fanatics, has been catastrophic. 

Visits from Brits are down 90% since the attack. Tourist hotels are boarded up and previous hotspots resemble ghost towns.

Since the attacks, the UK government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office has advised against travel to the country.

Parts of Tunisia, in the north west, west and a large area in the south near Libya remain on the FCO’s ‘no travel’ advice list.

They advise against all travel.

The whole of the rest of the country, including Sousse in the north east, where the attacks took place, are classified by the FCO as ‘advise against all but essential travel’.

It says, “A state of emergency is in effect in Tunisia, imposed after a suicide attack on a police bus on 24 November 2015. It has been extended a number of times, most recently on 16 February 2017 by three months.”

The devastating attack in June 2015 on a beach in Tunisia claimed 38 lives 


TUI and negligence

The inquest into the killings has now concluded that they were ‘unlawful’ and the coroner, judge Nicholas Loraine-Smith, blasted the Tunisian authorities response as “at best shambolic and at worst cowardly.”

However, the families of victims had wanted the inquest to consider whether TUI (Thomson holidays) and the hotels the tourists had stayed in had been negligent in not ensuring security had been stepped up in the response to earlier attacks and incidents.

But the coroner said he could not do this because the law regarding neglect did not cover tourists who voluntarily agreed to go on holiday.

It only applied in cases where someone had a duty of care towards someone because of their youth, age, an illness or incarceration.

TUI maintained it was "wholly erroneous" to claim it had been neglectful and there was insufficient evidence of any gross failure.


Reassurance Tunisia was 100% safe

This was despite the fact that the inquest was told by one witness that a TUI agent had reassured them the location was 100% safe.

In summing up at the end of a six-week hearing, the judge said holidaymakers had been "reassured" about safety before booking.

One man said his wife had raised the March 2015 attack at the Bardo museum in the capital Tunis with a travel agent, who told her it had been a "one-off" and the place was "100% safe”.

A Thomson travel agent said she would not say somewhere was completely safe, the inquest heard.


Case continues

But all this doesn’t mean the case is over. 

Victims’ families have vowed to fight on and to sue TUI.

Kylie Hutchison, a solicitor for 22 of the families, said it was crucial that the travel industry learned from what happened in Sousse.

She added: "On behalf of our clients who lost members of their family and those who suffered injuries in this terrible incident, we will now be preparing to commence civil proceedings against TUI.”


What has changed?

TUI have made it clear they have made changes since the tragedy.

Outside the inquest, TUI managing director Nick Longman said TUI had taken steps to raise awareness of risk since the killings.

"These are complex matters and we have already taken steps to raise awareness of the FCO’s Travel Aware campaign.

"Together with the travel industry, in light of these comments, we must now take some time to further reflect on these areas.

“On that day the world changed. As an industry we have adapted and we will need to continue to do so."

Mr Longman stressed that TUI now includes links "on almost every page" of its website and travel brochures linking to the FCO advice, and that its employees are trained on how to give advice.


Customers’ responsibility

What this means, certainly for now, is that the customer is responsible for checking on travel advice from official sources, namely the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other governments’ advisory services.

It is almost certainly the case that TUI staff will not make assessments of risk in countries or offer advice about where is safe to travel. 

But, as the families prepare to sue, travel companies will be watching closely and most will be reformulating their procedures around advice and also of how destinations are assessed.


The question for the courts will be: could TUI have done more?

Before the beach attack, there had been other terror attacks in the country.

In October 2013 a suicide bomber struck in front of another Sousse beach hotel, the Riadh Palm. No one else was injured in this attack.

Security forces foiled another attack nearby.

In March 2015, just three months before the beach massacre, gunmen stormed the Bardo National Museum, killing 23 people.

Even so, TUI did not alter its Tunisia travel advice before the beach killings; nor did the FCO, other than to insert a line saying further attacks were likely.

But TUI did provide staff with a crib sheet on the Bardo attack in case potential holidaymakers asked about it.

And the inquest heard that it also cancelled some organised trips in Tunisia.

So, if legal action does go ahead, as threatened, TUI will certainly face some tough questions.

Why didn’t it show the link to the FCO ravel advice prominently on its website?

After the March 2015 shootings in Tunis, the advice was strengthened to warn of a high risk of terrorism and the possibility of more attacks including at tourist destinations, so why did TUI allegedly only direct customers to the foreign travel advice if they specifically asked about security?

Why did TUI not check security at hotels where customers were being sent, when it HAD carried out checks in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh? 

TUI managers told the inquest that the hotels, Tunisian police and government were responsible for security and that the response of foreign governments to terror attacks in Sharm el-Sheikh had been different to that in Tunisia.


Bottom line

The bottom line is this: if you are worried about a destination you are thinking about holidaying in, you need to research it thoroughly and heed advice from official sources.

You cannot rely on the tour company to advise.


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