In 2015, holiday hot spot Tunisia and its tourism industry were decimated by a series of terror attacks that tarnished the country’s reputation and radically changed the world’s perception of the nation from popular package destination to extremist danger zone.
The Beginning of Tunisia’s Fall
A country’s brand matters whether it is an advanced or developing economy, and it is no secret that the foundation of Tunisia’s nation brand has been rocked repeatedly. In 2015, three militants from an al-Qaeda splinter group attacked the Bardo Antiquities Museum in the Tunisian capital Tunis, shooting at cruise ship vacationers. A hostage situation unfolded as tourists fled to the museum for safety, and twenty-one people, mostly European, were killed at the scene.
Just over three months later, a young man opened fired on tourists enjoying the hot June sun on the beach in Sousse, eastern Tunisia, indiscriminately murdering thirty-eight holidaymakers.
In the aftermath of these attacks, the coastal nation felt the shockwaves of wholesale hotel closures, job losses en masse across the hospitality sector and the establishment of stringent security measures by government authorities. The British Foreign Office issued warnings against all but essential travel to the region and flights from UK hubs were suspended. Chaos in neighbouring Libya added further volatility to an already tenuous situation. Relying on tourism for 90% of its employment and revenue, Sousse was brought to its knees.
Tunisia’s tourism sector accounts for roughly 17% of the country’s GDP, and employs more than 200,000 people. Visitors fell by 25% in 2015 following the incidents, while tourism revenue dropped by a staggering $1.1 billion.
A Climate of Fear
Forty-five miles south of Sousse lies the town of El Djem, an outpost which blossomed during the Roman period when gifted hands whittled an amphitheatre that to this day rivals the wonder of the Colosseum. While its Italian counterpart is thronged with selfie-stick touting tourists all year round, today there are few visitors to El Djem.
The outputs of terrorism are manifold but its purpose is always the same: to promulgate a climate of fear in order to undermine the integrity of a community, a city or a state. These violent acts create distrust and suspicion among ethnicities, and render ordinary people terrified of engaging in everyday activities, like taking the bus, eating in cafés or simply enjoying a day at the beach.
The reputation management strategy of a country should seek to align key stakeholders across all sectors around a unified vision for the future.
In order to consolidate a positive country brand, nations must dispel negative perceptions which are held about them; key opinion-leaders must think strategically about what principles the country wants to be known for, and put in place actions to meet the vision for the brand, including a comprehensive stakeholder engagement programme. In cases like Tunisia, government bodies find themselves tasked with implementing a restorative communications strategy to mend and protect the country’s tourism sector, foreign direct investment (FDI) and diplomatic interests. A five-step approach could be considered:
- The underlying cause(s) of a country’s negative image must be clearly defined and audited. This can be achieved through stakeholder analysis, scenario planning and industry benchmarking.
- Brand strategists tasked with the restoration of Tunisia’s country image may find it helpful to pinpoint its brand aspirations, engage with stakeholders and assemble key learnings from success stories.
- The source of the negative reputation must be addressed – it cannot be simply plastered over. All temporary solutions are sure to crack: a brand strategy must be built on steadfast foundations.
- A winning strategy will only succeed if capable individuals are driving it. Leaders must be trained and mentored so that they can lead effectively and competently.
- Finally, the success or failure of a country’s brand rests on the quality of its communications to the global market. Thought leadership, proactive stakeholder engagement and influential narrative backed by strong brand ambassadors must be strategically employed to solidify the work which has been done behind the scenes.
Promising beginnings, cautiously optimistic future
Despite its hardships, Tunisia holds a historical treasure trove of little known gems that may be the key to copper fastening a positive global reputation in years to come.
Tourists are returning to Tunisia, albeit slowly. High numbers of Russian and Algerian budget-holiday enthusiasts saved coastal resorts from outright bankruptcy in 2016, and this month British tour operator Thomas Cook is set to relaunch package holidays to Tunisian resorts for the first time since the Sousse massacre.
Tourism officials noted that the number of foreign arrivals jumped by more than a third in the first quarter of 2017, with travel operators reporting an increase in Asian tourists eager to soak up all that this cultural melting pot has to offer.
Digital marketing specialists emphasised foreign engagement from the outset of last year, creating new websites and dedicated social accounts on Twitter and Instagram to target prospective visitors from countries like Belgium which had already relaxed its travel ban by spring 2017.
Although its foundations have been shaken in modern times, Tunisia is fortunate to have a place on the right side of history. In 1861, it was the first Arab nation to boast a written constitution, a document which extended rights to migrants (an unheard of precedence at the time). The small North African nation also abolished slavery before the United States, and became an early advocate for equal rights and free education.
Tunisia will forever carry a legacy of championing progressive politics, of pushing for broader women’s rights, the prohibition of polygamy and general tolerance, a heritage that should be leveraged when creating a fresh narrative for Tunisia on the world stage. Today, despite its recently chequered past, Tunisia stands out in an otherwise ubiquitously chaotic region as a beacon of hope and potential success. Only time will tell if careful brand management, strategic communications and investment can fully restore this fascinating nation’s reputation.