The True Cost of Terrorism: Tunisia's Tourism Industry Struggles to Survive
At the end of June, 37 guests of a Tunisian resort hotel died in a hail of terrorist gunfire. Since then, tourists have stayed away, and the tragedy has only just begun.
Above the terrace gate at the Hotel Riu Imperial Marhaba in Port El Kantaoui, a worker on a ladder is filling the last bullet hole left behind by Seifeddine Yacoubi when he killed 37 European tourists at the resort in early summer. Yacoubi walked up from the beach wielding a Kalashnikov and went on a half-hour rampage at the luxury hotel before police shot and killed him. Two-and-a-half months have passed since the massacre. It is the beginning of fall, but the sun is still strong in Tunisia. It is 10 a.m. and the temperature is already 30° Celsius (86°F) under a clear blue sky.
Manfred Buszkiewicz is sitting in dappled shade next to the hotel manager, watching the repair work and drinking a morning beer. His mobile phone makes a bleating noise whenever it receives a report on his favorite soccer team, 1 FC Cologne (the club's mascot is a Billy goat). Buszkiewicz, who is from the town of Euskirchen, near Cologne, has the club's app on his phone. It's a Tuesday morning in mid-September, the second week of Buszkiewicz's vacation. His wife Fatima is sunbathing on the beach below the hotel. Two waiters in snow-white shirts and black vests are standing behind the terrace door, waiting for him to empty his beer glass. The Riu Marhaba Imperial has 130 employees, including 26 headwaiters. But there are currently only 30 guests. There are 80 wicker chairs on the terrace, but only one of them is occupied -- by Buszkiewicz.
"Welcome," he says, and empties his beer.
One of the two waiters promptly disappears into the deserted hotel lobby. It's the size of a soccer field and 15 meters (50 feet) high, with a glass dome at the top. The marble floor is filled with armchairs, sofas, glass tables, palm trees and a large black concert grand. A guest could sit in the lobby for an hour, pondering life, without seeing a single person. The only discernible movement in the lobby is that of the four glass elevators, as they move rhythmically up and down.
After a minute, the next beer arrives -- with a frothy head, as Buszkiewicz had requested. The staff is primarily accustomed to English guests, who like their beer flat. This is his fifth stay at the Riu Imperial Marhaba, where the personnel call him Manni. He hands the waiter a coin. Although everything is included in the room price at the Imperial Marhaba, the waiters depend on tips, and now that there are few guests, they are especially dependent on Manni.
"There are usually 700 to 800 guests here at this time of the year," says Buszkiewicz. "And now? It's a dance of the dead."
The June 26 massacre destroyed the tourism industry in Tunisia. Many countries, including the Netherlands, Belgium and Great Britain, issued travel warnings in the days following the attack, major tour operators pulled out of Tunisia and most charter flights to Tunisian resorts were cancelled. The changes meant that Buszkiewicz had to fly to Tunisia from Düsseldorf this time instead of Cologne.
He thought long and hard about whether to travel to Tunisia this year. A friend from Düsseldorf, an elderly woman named Gisela, was killed in the massacre. A Belgian woman Buszkiewicz and his wife have known for a long time was shot in the leg. They visited her and her husband at home after the attack.
"Of course, they won't be coming here anymore," Buszkiewicz says of the Belgian couple, "which is perfectly understandable, in a way."
Buszkiewicz and his wife had originally booked their trip for exactly the time when the attack occurred, so that they could see the friends they had made at the hotel on previous visits. But because their daughter was getting married in the summer, they decided to postpone the trip until September. That's why they are still alive, says his wife. When Buszkiewicz went to the travel agency in Euskirchen to cancel the trip, the woman working there said she understood. She talked about Spain and Greece, and Buszkiewicz nodded. He didn't really care where they went.
Buszkiewicz owns a small company that makes conveyor belts. He has eight employees, and there is always plenty to do. In his free time, he drives around the Eifel Mountains on his Honda Gold Wing motorcycle. He only takes a vacation once a year, and when he does, Buszkiewicz wants peace and quiet, sunshine and his beer served with a frothy head. As he was driving home from the travel agency, he felt guilty, as if he had let down the staff at the Imperial Marhaba. Even when the hotel was extremely busy, they always knew that he had ordered a Bacardi and Coke. The Express, a Cologne tabloid, wrote that the hotel employees had formed a human chain to protect their guests from the gunman. Some of them had reportedly shouted: "Shoot me!" But Yacoubi only targeted tourists.
Buszkiewicz sent a fax to Kamel, the head receptionist. "Manni, everything is safe," he wrote back. Buszkiewicz returned to the travel agency and booked a double room at the enchanting Imperial Marhaba. The two-week trip cost 2,500 ($2,820) for him and his wife, including room, board and airfare. He brought Kamel a food processor, a large bottle of Joop! cologne and a handful of company pens. They gave him and his wife Fatima a suite on the fourth floor of the left wing, the only one the hotel is currently using. Buszkiewicz defied the circumstances, as has the Hotel Imperial Marhaba.
'We Are a Symbol'
The neighboring hotels on the beach were already closed when Buszkiewicz and his wife arrived, the Bellevue to the left, the Palm Marina to the right, as were most of the others stretching for miles along the Mediterranean beaches, all the way to the city of Sousse. Only the Imperial Marhaba, the hotel where the biggest terrorist attack in Tunisian history took place, is still open.
"We are a symbol," says General Manager Mehrez Saadi. "The terrorists have not won as long as we are here."
His bold pronouncement sails through the abandoned atrium of his shiny, empty hotel like a paper airplane. Saadi, 35, is from Tunisia, studied management in Tunis and speaks Arabic, French and English. He also speaks German very well, after having worked in Munich for a year and a half. He has served as the general manager of the Marhaba for the past three years. He was there when the disaster occurred, and he helped guests sneak out of the lobby. Saadi says he would have killed the terrorist if he had had a weapon. What happened in that half hour was a tragedy, he says, just like what happened afterwards.
"We had 630 guests on the morning of June 26. By evening, 530 had left. I felt so powerless. A hotel manager needs guests, just as the heart needs blood," says Saadi.
He scans the lobby, paying particularly close attention to his staff's posture. Reception, bar, guest activity and entertainment planners. The hotel photographer is sitting at his desk like some mythical creature. He photographed many of the guests in the days before they died. Their smiling faces were still shimmering on his computer screen even after their bodies had been covered up. Several times a day, General Manager Saadi, wearing a flawless shirt and tie, walks through the heat, visiting the beach, the pool area, the tennis courts and the fitness center. He lists the attacks that have occurred in the West: New York, Madrid, London, Paris.
"It took them 48 hours to catch the murderers after the attack on Charlie Hebdo," he says. "Here it took less than two hours."
The Flags of Europe
"Nevertheless, Europe is shunning us now. They issue travel warnings like traffic tickets. Tourists aren't afraid to fly to London or New York, but they are afraid to come here. They don't trust us. They believe we are an Arab country, but we are Tunisia. A North African country. A Mediterranean country. A modern, cosmopolitan country."
The flags of European countries fly on tall masts in front of the hotel, next to the one from Tunisia: Germany, Spain, Russia, Belgium, France and Great Britain. Most of the victims were from Britain, which accounted for 70 percent of the guests. Thirty British citizens died on June 26 and there is not a single British guest at the hotel today. There are five German couples, a Dutch couple, two Russian couples, a Ukrainian couple, a Czech couple, two Saudi Arabian couples, a large family from Algeria, two older women from the German state of Baden-Württemberg, and a single female traveler from Moscow, whose name is Irina and who starts getting drunk in the afternoon.
A team from Scotland Yard joins the group the next day: eight pale men in short-sleeve shirts and shorts, men who look like they don't eat very well. They use 3-D technology to survey the empty hotel and grounds. The eight British police officers are guarded by eight heavily armed members of the Tunisian National Guard.
Because we are British, says one of the policemen.
They have been instructed not to stay at the hotel, which is deemed too dangerous. They spend four days surveying the Imperial Marhaba, which is a large hotel with many nooks, long hallways, high ceilings, several pools, bars and restaurants, a spa, a fitness center and 365 rooms. Every evening, the British policemen pack up their 3-D technology and drive to Tunis. Their goal is to carefully reconstruct the attack, so as to determine who was responsible for allowing something like this to happen. It probably has something to do with insurance, says Saadi, with money. He looks irritated as he watches the men in shorts and their Tunisian guards, who clearly enjoy dressing like mercenaries in a Hollywood film.
"This is unacceptable, all these submachine guns. A hotel and weapons are about as compatible as fish and milk," says Saadi.
As they watch the German news in their room at night, the Buszkiewiczes see images of refugees and migrants flowing into Europe. When they take the glass elevator down to the lobby afterwards, the hotel seems even emptier than before. They are struck by the strange contrast between refugees crowding into Europe and the emptiness in the hotel. Then again, perhaps there is a relationship between the two.
After dinner, the Buszkiewiczes and the Kleines sit on the terrace, drinking cordials and smoking. Carin and Henk Klein are from the Dutch town of Puth, and they are even bigger fans of Tunisia than Fatima and Manfred Buszkiewicz. The country has taught them to see the world with their hearts, says Henk Kleine, who works as a customs officer. They have been coming to Tunisia for 20 years, often three times a year. They usually stay at the Riu Bellevue next door, but it has been closed since August.
Henk and Carin would also have been in Tunisia on June 26, but then their dog Schnöff was diagnosed with bladder cancer. They had to take him outside three or four times every night, and he couldn't be left alone. The pet has since died.
"Maybe he saved our lives," says Henk. "Schnöff."
Unlike the Buszkiewiczes, the Kleines didn't hesitate for a moment before returning to Tunisia. They are there because they love Tunisia, and because they know they are needed. They are also there to see Ali Sahli, a young waiter they met while staying at the Bellevue, and whom they support financially since he lost his job. The couple sends him 100-150 a month, they always bring along a suitcase of clothing for his family and they also pay for his driving lessons.
Fatima Buszkiewicz, who works as a saleswoman and server at a bakery that makes Printen, a German gingerbread specialty, in the town of Bad Münstereifel, initially had had reservations about returning to Tunisia -- because of their friend Gisela, from Düsseldorf. But now she says: "When it's your time to go, well, that's just the way it is. I'd rather die in the sun than in Euskirchen." Carin Kleine, a nurse, says that when she dies, she wants some of her ashes scattered on the beach here.
Reminiscent of the Titanic
The stereo is blasting songs like "Que será, será," "Don't Be Cruel," "Let's Twist Again" and "Losing My Religion" onto the terrace, as well as "Ave Maria." Shooting stars appear to fall into the sea like rain. The older couple from Prague is dancing earnestly among the wicker chairs while the Russian woman, Irina, is getting drunk at the bar. The atmosphere is reminiscent of the mood on the Titanic.
That night Zohra Driss, the hotel's owner, decides that it's time to close down. The property is losing too much money. It needs an occupancy rate of 25 percent to make it through the winter, but only 5 percent of the rooms are currently occupied. The hotel made it through the summer with guests from Tunisia and Algeria, but now reservations have declined dramatically. In addition, the Spanish Riu chain, which has a 49 percent stake in the Imperial Marhaba, is considering pulling out of Tunisia altogether. Driss informs the general manager of her decision. The next morning, Saadi delivers the message to every department in the hotel.
On Sept. 30, the Imperial Marhaba will join the other hotels along the beach and give up.
The headwaiters are standing, stone-faced, in the empty breakfast room. Kalif and Amor have worked at the Marhaba for 21 years. They have many laughter lines and few teeth. Mejdha and Mirha, the coffee waitresses, kiss Fatima and Carin with tears in their eyes. The two European women are also in tears. In fact, as Manfred Buszkiewicz puts it, everyone there is bawling.
It's the hottest day of the week, with no wind and a temperature of 38°C. Sixteen Britons who were guests at the hotel in June will return in the afternoon. They want to make their peace with the place, as Zohra Driss was told by ministry officials. They are expected at 3 p.m. At 2:30, Saadi has a reception table set up in the lobby. There are 16 cocktail glasses and three silver trays of pastries.
Saadi sits down in an armchair and gazes at the lobby, where his employees are also sitting in armchairs. Three hotel employees are consulting at the reception desk.
Like Lemon for Fish
For years, the Spanish company has been pulling money out of the country. But now that there are problems, it is running away with its tail between its legs. That's capitalism. Of course, Saadi isn't allowed to say any of this, because he is a Riu employee.
All he says is this: Our people are used like a slice of lemon for fish.
He will be the first to go. But Saadi is well-educated, has had a respectable career thus far and is still relatively young. He doesn't have a family. At first he worked too hard to be able to establish one, he says, and now he no longer has a job. He laughs. He plans to take a few days off and go swimming with his girlfriend. There is a beach in Hergla, a few kilometers to the north, that hasn't been invaded by giant hotels yet. Perhaps the hotel shouldn't have focused so heavily on the British. He looks at the pale Scotland Yard officers, who look unimpressed as they survey the property. They have even brought along their own beverages, probably afraid of being poisoned.
"The emptiness is bearable, as long as the staff maintains its conduct," says the general manager. "That glass table really ought to be cleaned. The people over there aren't supposed to be sitting down. They should be attending to the guests. But what should I tell them, on a day like this? Many of them have spent their entire working lives at this hotel."
Saadi has the reception table cleared away at 4:30 p.m. It appears that the former English guests will not be coming to make their peace, after all. Only Manfred Buszkiewicz shuffles through the lobby, wearing an "I Love Tunisia" T-shirt that he had bought in the city.
The Kleines, from the Netherlands, are having dinner in the countryside with their protégé, Ali.
The drive leads through endless olive groves to a restaurant where Ali Sahli sometimes works as a waiter. The place is beautiful but empty. Surrounded by olive trees, illuminated gravel paths and a large swimming pool, there is a terrace with a single table on it. Everything is interrelated. The hotels, the taxis, the restaurants, the markets: They all depend on two things in Tunisia, tourists and olives. Sahli is from the mountains. Together with his mother, five brothers and one sister, he moved to the coast for work, and also because their village on the Algerian border was increasingly turning into a special military zone. The entire family lives in a small apartment 10 kilometers from the hotel. The restaurants and cafés where Sahli worked over the years are almost all closed. He blames the all-inclusive system in large hotels, where people spend their entire days in the hotel and have few opportunities to get to know the country.
'The Tragedy Is Beginning Now'
"Ninety percent of the guests don't have a relationship with Tunisia, so they have nothing to give up when their countries issue travel warnings," says Sahli.
Carin and Henk Kleine look at him in amazement.
"None of my friends has a job anymore," says Sahli. "Some are saving money for the traffickers, while others are going to Syria to make money. They have two choices: the boats or Islamic State. Eventually you Europeans will also get the message. The tragedy didn't begin on June 26. The tragedy is beginning now."
When the Kleines return to the Imperial Marhaba after midnight, the hotel already feels as if it were closed -- a black, deserted monolith, like a haunted house. A fire alarm is blaring on one of the upper floors. The alarms sometimes go off when it gets too hot in the long hallways, says a tired-looking man at the reception desk. The bar is closed, and Irina is sitting on the terrace, drunk and sad. When she sees us, the lonely Russian woman praises Chancellor Angela Merkel's refugee policy and Carin Kleine's appearance.
"You're so beautiful," says Irina. "May I kiss you?"
By the next morning, the European flags have been taken down. Now only the Tunisian flag is flying in front of the hotel.
Madame Driss is at the hotel today to explain to the employees what happens next. She has a penthouse in the left wing, but she rarely stays there. She is a petite, elegant woman and full of energy. Some claim she was the real target of the June attack. There are eyewitnesses who describe how the killer tried to reach the hotel owner's office.
After spending an hour with Madame Driss, one can imagine why.
She comes from a dynasty that is not old, but powerful. Her father is one of the biggest hotel owners in Sousse. At 20, he was sent to prison for several years for fighting against the country's French occupiers. After he and his country had gained their freedom and independence, he went into business instead of politics. His family owned some farmland along the coast, not much, but enough land to accommodate the first Marhaba Hotel in the 1960s. The family now owns more than 20 hotels. His children studied pharmaceutics, law and business. Zohra Driss is an agricultural engineer, but at some point she decided to enter the hotel business, and she now owns three hotels. When the Arab spring erupted, she first took to the streets and then went into politics, because she feared that the increasingly powerful Islamists could curtail the rights of Tunisian women. Compulsory education was introduced and polygamy was abolished in Tunisia in 1956. Women are allowed to divorce their husbands, and they have the right to obtain abortions. Tunisian women used to have eight to 10 children, but today the average is two. Driss is a member of the Tunisian parliament because she refuses to give up these achievements.
"When you promote a man you promote an individual, but when you promote a woman you promote society," she says.
Driss says she will never sell her hotel, but keeping it open is also not an option. She was able to absorb the losses following the 2011 revolution. The French stopped coming to Tunisia, but the British replaced them. She was also able to withstand the March attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis. But the massacre at her hotel happened in June, at the beginning of the tourist season. It was the worst possible time.
Did the terrorists win in the end?
"Yes," she says. "Unfortunately, they did. They are influencing the travels of an entire continent."
Is she disappointed in the Europeans?
"Yes," she says. "I understood that the tourists wanted to leave quickly after the attack. The hectic departures were only human. But the travel warning was calculated and is very damaging to us. Tunisia has a number of very difficult years ahead. If there is little hope, radical ideas will of course become very popular. One shouldn't forget that our small, modern, cosmopolitan country is also a threat to other countries in the region."
On the evening before their departure, the Buszkiewiczes and Kleines are sitting in the wicker chairs on the terrace one last time. Buszkiewicz is wearing a 1 FC Cologne jersey while his wife Fatima talks about her father. All she knows about him is that he was from Morocco. Her mother cut up all the photos of him and never wanted to talk about the man, who left the family when Fatima was three. She has kept his dark eyes, her name and a few memories from the German village where they lived in the 1970s, and where she was the target of racial epithets. Her husband Manfred stares awkwardly into his Bacardi and Coke. He asked the two breakfast waitresses for their account numbers, planning to sponsor their families, just as the Kleines have done.
'The Most Moving'
"It's better than throwing some coins into a coffee cup for the man with the crooked leg at the train station in Euskirchen," he says.
Shuttle buses will pick them up from the hotel early Saturday morning. Carin Kleine says that this has been her best Tunisia vacation ever.
"The best one?" Buszkiewicz asks skeptically. After all, only one of the three theme restaurants was open. There were no organized hotel activities or entertainment program, no scampi and the bar closed at midnight.
"The most moving," says Carin Kleine.
Once again, there are tears in her eyes. The four tourists are standing in the driveway, underneath the lone Tunisian flag, like the last Europeans standing.
Two hours after the two couples have left, a delegation of about 30 people sweeps into the now-almost-completely-empty Hotel Imperial Marhaba. It's a group of Tunisians from Belgium who are campaigning for a resumption of tourism. They are led by two older intellectuals from Liege, a professor at the city's university and an attorney. They aim to convince Belgian officials to lift the travel warning, and the government in Tunis to change the character of tourism in Tunisia. They will meet with the president of the Tunisian parliament in the afternoon. Guests should get to know all of Tunisia's charms, not just the coastal area, says the professor. He argues that the large hotels should be downsized and the influence of large international travel companies reduced.
The group, carrying flags and banners, walks down to the beach to lay a wreath in memory of the victims of June 26. Madame Zohra Driss and hotel manager Mehrez Saadi join the group. They all pose for a souvenir photo on the beach, and the last of the hotel's guests join in, still wearing their bathing suits. It is a contradictory and yet comforting image: the sunburned, half-naked European tourists and their well-dressed hosts, together with a few activists from Belgium, against a backdrop of the silvery Mediterranean, looking smooth enough to walk across -- to the other side.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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