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Tunisia free – Brits moan

16 January 2011

This is a travel blog, not a political blog, so although there’s been intense activity over on twitter tracking the extraordinary Tunisian revolution, I’m not going to dwell on the implications here.

Instead, I’m going to focus in on my own country’s unerring ability to miss the big picture in favour of pushing its own emotional buttons. It took literally weeks for the British media to even start reporting the fact that political feeling in Tunisia was rising against the dictatorship of Ben Ali. When they did, they reached for the cosy old familiarity of terms reflecting how the West likes to think of Eastern hotheads – terms like coup, rioters and violent rebellion. People were dying while campaigning for simple democracy but it was all just more bad news from the fringes: easy to ignore.

And, it seems, the tourism industry chose to ignore it. Even after it was clear to modestly informed onlookers that something big was happening in Tunisia, and that political revolution was in the air, the holiday companies were still flying plane-loads of tourists out for holidays in the sun. Even while protestors were being killed in the streets.

I call that irresponsible profiteering.

Then, when the crisis came to a head and the president fled the country, suddenly the media woke up, the news organizations parachuted in their special correspondents – and, true to form, “evacuated” British tourists started arriving back at UK airports for their 15 seconds of fame, blurting out tales of tanks and armed rioters, complaining how they’d lost money on their holiday and moaning about how scary it had been.

But, when Tunisia’s political collapse finally happened, it was not a surprise: this wasn’t a shock overnight event, like the Berlin Wall coming down. This had been brewing for weeks.

The British tourism industry stuck their heads in the sand and hoped it would all go away. They, in effect, put their staff and customers in mortal danger by continuing their operations in Tunisia, and also made a political decision to support the dictatorial status quo by not pulling out when the crackdown began. Will anybody hold them to account?

After this Tunisia will be a better place, its tourism industry will continue to thrive, and it’s most unlikely people will be put off returning there or anywhere else in the region (unless other regimes start toppling). The long-term ramifications will be negligible. The holiday companies will continue to benefit.

Small-minded Britons arriving home early should shut up moaning about losing their winter sunshine, and start congratulating the Tunisians on an amazing achievement. There’s a bigger picture here.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. 16 January 2011 2.41pm

    Hi Matthew, thank you for speaking sense. I was saying exactly the same thing last night when the news were interviewing some executive from one of the big package holiday firms. The situation in Tunisia has not happened overnight as the tour operators and media will have us believe, but something that has been underlying for weeks and months. Freedom from a dictatorship is something that should be celebrated around the world and the Tunisian people have fought long and hard for it. The media focusing on some moaning chavs arriving back at Gatwick are taking away from what really matters – political freedom.

  2. Hal Peat permalink
    17 January 2011 5.10am

    I understand Matthew’s framing this blog on the Tunisia events from the perspective of how British tour operators continued to do business in Tunisia and Brit travelers in turn continued to go down there, all seemingly oblivious to the unfolding changes that have been going on for quite some time. What that leads me to wonder about, from this side of the Atlantic and not being very up on British tour operators, is how the Tunisian events will make them react or plan in future if something similar plays out elsewhere in north Africa or the Gulf or anywhere else in the region — as is being speculated in a lot of the news commentary. Do you think tour operators have learned anything from it, in terms of doing things differently in future when and if they even bother to take notice of change on the horizon in another country in the region?

  3. 17 January 2011 9.33am

    Thank you @Sam and @Hal for your thoughts – interesting perspectives. Still very early to judge the impact: let’s see how things play out…

  4. 17 January 2011 2.10pm

    Excellent commentary, Matthew. While I can’t speak to this specific incident (Tunisia and Britons returning home), we’ve seen this time and again around the world.

    Tourism operators who won’t risk having to refund money by cancelling tours have no problem risking the lives of their customers by sending them into dangerous political situations. The tourists, believing that no company or government would allow them to go into a politically-unstable situation, go along with it.

    And, of course, the media is more concerned about the lives of locals–that is normal–but rather than reporting on who put those lives in danger it reports on ruined holidays.

    There are two stories being missed: the new democratic Tunisia and the tour operators who continued sending tourists to Tunisia (but they’ll blame the government saying there hadn’t been a warning issued).

    On the other hand, during the riots in Bangkok last year I did not tell people to avoid to Thailand. I did advise them to avoid the capital and especially the neighborhoods where the fighting was taking place. Perhaps not a good comparison but the troops were sent in to quell that street fighting as well.

  5. 20 January 2011 8.06am

    Thanks so much for coming by, Doris – great to see you here. Interesting comments. To be honest, I’d be happier if the media did in fact report on the lives of locals (even, shock horror, BEFORE the dictators are pushed out) – but, in the UK at least, the focus most of the time is on us. If there isn’t a British angle, forget it.

    This is often why Al Jazeera English, in particular, can be such a breath of fresh air, bringing genuinely untapped perspectives to world attention. Their reputation has risen hugely in the Arab world during and after the Tunisian uprising – they were the only global news outlet reporting the events in any depth, despite being barred from Tunis by Ben Ali and having no bureau there.

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