Holidaymakers are being evacuated from Tunisia after violent clashes forced the Tunisian President to declare a state of emergency, and then stand down. John Sparks talks to the tourists.
The holidaymakers became inadvertently caught up in what some are calling the Arab world’s first revolution for decades, after violent unrest spread across Tunisia, ultimately forcing President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to stand down – and reportedly flee the country.
Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi has taken over on an interim basis, as travel operators rush to evacuate their passengers.
Thomas Cook said that 3,800 people currently holidaying in Tunisia are to be evacuated following the unrest. Some passengers arriving back in the UK said they witnessed distressing scenes with crowds roaming the streets, smashing shop windows and looting.
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office yesterday revised advice, urging people not to go to the country unless travel was essential.
A Thomas Cook spokeswoman told Channel 4 News: “Although there has been no specific problems for our holidaymakers, their well-being is our primary concern so, as a precaution, we’ve taken the decision to bring them back to the UK as soon as we can, using our fleet of aircraft today.”
Departures due to take place on 16 January have now been cancelled, the holiday company said. The next departure, Wednesday 19 January, is being reviewed by the company and customers will be contacted shortly.
As a precuation, we’ve taken the decision to bring them back to the UK as soon as we can. Thomas Cook spokeswoman
Air France told Channel 4 News that it had temporarily suspended all flights. Cosmos, another holiday operator, said that while an evacuation order had not been given for their customers, flights or holidays would not be operating to the country on 15 and 16 January.
Flights travelling to Tunisia today were quiet, whereas return journeys were overbooked in both classes, a BA cabin crew member told Channel 4 News.
Holiday companies First Choice and Thomson said they had cancelled all excursions due to take place in Tunisia today and had also cancelled the Thomson Airways’ flights due to leave for Tunisia on Sunday.
But the companies said they were only bringing home those customers who wished to leave and no decision had yet been taken on flights due to depart for Tunisia after Sunday.
The Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) said: “There have been no reports of British nationals being affected by the unrest and foreigners are unlikely to be targeted. However, tourists should remain cautious and vigilant and continue to follow the advice of their tour operator, local authorities and the Foreign Office.”
A British tourist travelling to Tunisia today told Channel 4 News they would follow events in the next few days and travel home if it became essential.
Six flights brought the tourists home, with four coming into Manchester and two to Gatwick in West Sussex.
Some passengers arriving at Gatwick Airport said they were relieved to be back.
Jim Thompson, 76, from East Kilbride, was 10 days into his break in Hammamet with his wife Eleanor, 71, when they were forced to abandon their holiday.
Mr Thompson, a retired technical author, said: “There were crowds running up the streets, smashing windows and looting. This morning I saw a big shop window broken and people were coming out with loads of shoes. It was horrible. I was panicked.”
France’s foreign ministry also said its citizens should avoid travelling to Tunisia.
“Given the unstable situation… it is strongly recommended to postpone all travel that is not urgent,” the ministry said in a statement on its website.
France has about 21,000 nationals in the North African country and about 1.5 million of its citizens visit it each year.
Shadow foreign secretary Yvette Cooper said: “I am very concerned at the situation in Tunisia, and the response from the Tunisian Government to those who have been protesting peacefully or simply criticising their government.
“It is important the UK Government puts into effect appropriate measures to protect British citizens currently in Tunisia. It is critical Foreign Office communications get through to people in their resorts and hotels, and that help is provided to co-ordinate additional flights if necessary.
“In addition, the UK must press the Tunisian Government in the strongest possible terms to respond to protests proportionately without shooting or beating crowds of people.”