- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 18, 2011

BERLIN (AP) — Several European tour operators said Tuesday they have canceled trips to Tunisia through mid-February due to safety concerns, sending tens of thousands of sun-seekers to other destinations in a fresh blow to the Mediterranean country’s tourism industry.

German tour operators TUI AG and Rewe Touristik said departures until Feb. 15 are canceled and clients booked for Tunisia up to mid-April have the chance to change their destination without extra charge.

“The safety of our guests and employees has the highest priority,” the head of TUI’s crisis reaction team, Ulrich Heuer, said in a statement.

Dutch tour operators stopped taking new bookings after an industry insurer halted coverage for Tunisia for 30 days, the Netherlands’ OAD Reizen said. “The companies are not offering any new bookings” until Feb. 18 at the earliest, it said.

After massive anti-government protests forced autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to resign and flee to Saudi Arabia, many tour operators initially suspended departures to the country until Jan. 24.

Major German tour operators alone repatriated some 6,000 tourists over the weekend in the chaotic immediate aftermath of Ben Ali’s removal.

Tunisia — historically an island of stability in volatile North Africa — is prized by European tourists for its beaches, ancient ruins and desert, and its economy depends heavily on the travel industry.

“At the moment it’s not even high season in Tunisia,” TUI spokeswomen Anja Braun said. But tourists flock to the North African country’s coastal resorts as it gets warmer, making it one of the top 10 destinations for clients, she said.

Thomas Cook Group PLC’s German subsidiary said it was canceling all departures only until the end of the month.

Germany and many other European countries have now issued travel advisories discouraging their citizens from traveling to Tunisia, which is likely be a major blow for the troubled country’s tourism industry.

The German Travel Association says that in 2009, the latest available figure, 485,000 Germans traveled to Tunisia. Ninety percent of those were probably tourists, spokesman Torsten Schaefer said, and early bookings for 2011 were up before the political unrest unfolded.

The Association of Czech Travel Agents said some 70,000 Czechs flock toward Tunisia’s beaches every year, while Britain’s Foreign Office estimates 400,000 Britons visit Tunisia.

France’s association of tour operators, CETO, said Monday that all departures to Tunisia had been suspended until Sun. Jan. 23 — and that tour operators were to decide Friday whether to call for an extension that could reach into school holidays in mid-February.

In Sweden, two of the country’s largest tour operators — Ving, a Thomas Cook subsidiary, and Apollo, owned by Switzerland’s Kuoni — canceled their first few departures of the year to Tunisia.

Detur Sweden AB canceled its weekly Tunisia departures through March 4.


Toby Sterling in Amsterdam, Jamey Keaten in Paris, Cassandra Vinograd in London, Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this report.

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