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14 April 2024

European tourists evacuated from Tunisia


European tour operators on Saturday evacuated thousands of vacationers from Tunisia after a wave of unrest forced the president from power and left the popular tourist destination reeling.

French tour operator Ceto warned it could take a few days to bring home the estimated 8,000 French visitors, due to the evening curfew and the need to find planes and arrange special flights, according to Ceto head Rene-Marc Chikli.

Tunisia reopened all airports and its airspace on Saturday after they were apparently closed the day before as deposed president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali prepared to flee the country, ultimately heading to Saudi Arabia -- although a civil aviation official later denied there was any temporary closure.

In London, Thomas Cook and First Choice said they hoped to bring back nearly all their 1,500 clients within the next day and that they have scheduled seven flights out of troubled country on Saturday.

The British tour operators association ABTA said it did not have precise figures on the number of Britons in Tunisia in the midst of political turmoil but estimated they numbered between 2,000 to 3,000.

Chikli like other operators interviewed by AFP insisted that their clients were "secure in their hotels." At the same time, all planned excursions to the north African country in the immediate future have been suspended.

Tourists whose holiday plans have been suddenly disrupted have a couple of options, Claire Banham, a spokeswoman for ABTA said.

"One of them will be to rebook at a later stage. One would be to look at an alternative holiday. And a third... and this applies to package holidays, would be a full refund from the tour operator," she said.

But the French and British foreign ministries and those of other countries have again "strongly" advised their citizens to avoid all travel that is not of an urgent nature to Tunisia.

"The situation can rapidly change and is unpredictable," the British Foreign Office said.

A similar warning came from Moscow which said some 250 Russian citizens had sought the warm sunshine in Tunisia but were expected to be repatriated on Sunday.

Turkey also took part in repatriating more than 300 of its nationals from Tunisia Saturday, while Italy's air carrier Alitalia said it would resume flights to and from the north African country on Sunday.

Operators like Germany's TUI tourism group said they were using the airports at Monastir and Djerba as some said arranging flights out of the capital Tunis was a bit more difficult.

"It appears that all our clients are going to leave Tunisia today," said Ulla Buchert, a TUI representative, whose clients number about 1,000 out of the estimated 5,000 German tourists in the country.

Thomas Cook said it expects to repatriate 1,800 people to Germany.

Belgian operator Jetair said it was bringing 1,000 clients to Brussels this weekend and Thomas Cook's local branch about 360 people on Saturday.

"Everything went well from the hotels to the airports," said Thomas Cook Belgium's spokesman Baptiste van Outryve. "The evening was calm."

Swiss tour giant Kuoni said that all 230 of the company's Swiss clients in Tunisia have been contacted and urged to leave the country.

"From what we understand from our agents, all of them will be leaving Tunisia for Switzerland," said spokesman Peter Brun.

"For the moment, we are no longer sending tourists to Tunisia," he added, echoing other tour operators.

However, some vacationers were not so willing to give up Tunisia's famous beach resorts.

Germany's TUI noted that a small number of its clients refused to leave but "we said clearly to these clients that they stay at their own risk and peril and at their own cost."

As the country's speaker of parliament was sworn in as acting president, security forces imposed a harsh crackdown amid looting and other continuing unrest Saturday, the day after Ben Ali resigned as president and fled the country following weeks of protests against his authoritarian rule.