September 21, 2015 / 2:01 PM / 2 years ago

Million fewer tourists visit Tunisia this year after Islamist attacks

Tourists sunbathe on a beach in Fuengirola, on Costa del Sol, southern Spain, July 12, 2015. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

TUNIS (Reuters) - The number of foreign tourists in Tunisia dropped by 20 percent to four million in the first eight months of the year after two Islamist attacks that killed dozens of Western visitors, the tourism minister said on Monday.

Tunisia, for which foreign tourism is an important contributor to gross domestic product, has been under a state of emergency since the attacks. Security has been heightened around tourist sites and high-profile locations in the capital.

Thirty-eight people were killed by a gunman at a hotel in Sousse on the Mediterranean coast in June, three months after 21 tourists were killed by gunmen attacking the Bardo National Museum in the capital Tunis.

The Islamic State militant group claimed the two worst attacks in the North African country’s history.

“The number of tourists dropped to about four million since the beginning of the year through to Sept. 10 compared with five million who visited Tunisia in the same period last year,” Tourism Minister Salma Loumi said.

Some hotels have closed while foreign tour groups have canceled some routes, cruises and packages. On Monday, Spanish hotel chain Riu, part of German holiday group TUI, said it was reviewing its presence in Tunisia.

“Three of the hotels we manage will be closed over the winter months and we need to talk to the owners of the other hotels we manage there to see what we can do,” said a spokeswoman for Riu, which runs 10 hotels in Tunisia.

Several Spanish newspapers, citing news agency Efe, reported earlier that Riu had decided to leave the North African state.

Tourism accounts for some 7 percent of Tunisia’s GDP.

While acknowledging the difficult situation for the country, Loumi said the industry should take advantage of this time to start reforms, including improving the quality of services and diversifying tourism options.

Tunisia has cut its economic growth forecast to 0.5 percent for this year, down from an initially anticipated 3 percent.

Britain is advising tourists against travel to the country after 30 of its citizens were killed in the Sousse attack, in which an Islamist gunman opened fire on holidaymakers as they lounged at the beach and poolside.

Tour operators TUI and Thomas Cook have shelved their Tunisia programs from Britain until next year, while tour operators across Europe have shifted some capacity to destinations such as Spain.

Additional reporting by Robert Hetz and Sarah White in Madrid; Editing by Patrick Markey and Mark Heinrich

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