On June 26, 2015 a lone gunman killed 38 people on a Tunisian beach near the town of Sousse. The attack took place at the Riu Imperial Marhaba Hotel and all those killed were Europeans on holiday.
Sitting at my computer as the details of the atrocity unfolded I felt a distinct chill run through me. Only a few years earlier my now wife and I had unfurled our towels on the same beach, perhaps a few hundred metres away, while guests of the Marabout Hotel.
It was exactly the kind of place where a violent terrorist attack was the last thing anyone would have expected.
Not many Australians holiday in Tunisia, for reasons of proximity mainly. But the country and its smaller coastal cities have long been popular with Europeans.
For the British Tunisia has a similar appeal to destinations like Bali and Thailand for Australians – relatively close by, inexpensive with a faintly exotic culture, and accessible flop and drop luxury. Of the 38 people who died on that summer’s day, 30 were British citizens.
All 30 of those citizens had booked their trips to Sousse courtesy of Thomson Holidays, a large chain comparable to our own Flight Centre, and run by the leviathan German-owned travel company Tui. And this is where things get murky.
Last Tuesday saw the denouement of a seven-week UK inquest into the deaths of the 30 Britons, with the coroner finding those who died had been “unlawfully killed”. Despite this finding he stopped short of ruling that neglect by the operator (Thomson Holidays’ owner Tui) had caused their deaths.
Why, you might ask, would Tui have a case to answer for the deaths of 30 Britons, who were surely just in the wrong place at the wrong time? The answer is all to do with the operator’s duty of care to its clients.
And although no law has been breached it seems, the findings of the inquest make for ugly reading for Tui and Thomson Holidays.
For instance, people who booked online with Tui testified that the company’s safety and security advice “could not be better hidden”.
Travellers booking on Tui’s website had to navigate through seven pages and only on the last of these was there a header titled “important information” which offered travel advice.
By the time this page was reached, customers had already entered personal details, destination, flight and hotel information and made payment. The inquest heard from several survivors who said that had a heightened threat of terrorist attack been properly flagged they would have changed their plans.
Perhaps more damning, the UK’s Independent newspaper has reported that in the wake of an earlier terrorist attack on Tunis’s Bardo Museum on March 18, 2015 – which killed 22 including 20 foreign tourists – Tui issued a two page crib sheet to its agents and call centre staff which instructed them how to deal with anxious would-be clients.
This crib sheet also emphasised that those who had already booked faced cancellation fees despite the March terrorist attack.
Several survivors of the Sousse attack also testified at the inquest that when booking they were told by Thomson Holidays’ agents that the country was “100% safe” and that the Bardo incident was a “once off”. One claimed he was reassured by an agent who said “If something happened in London, would that stop you going to Skegness?”
In light of these findings, families of 22 of the victims have now resolved to sue Tui in the civil courts. Suzanne Richards, who lost her son, father and brother in the attack, said, “The travel industry process of booking and giving travel advice needs to be reviewed, by implementing robust travel advice and security audits before and during all holidays to safeguard the customer and the industry – safety before a sale.”
Of course, the counter argument to any suggestion of negligence on Tui’s behalf – or indeed any other company that sells product to a destination that poses a significant safety risk – is that individual travellers need to better educate themselves and, ultimately, be responsible for their decisions.
But in the case of Tui and the horrific Sousse terrorist attack, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that more could have been done to safeguard travellers. Tui, after all, is a company that banked an underlying profit for the year to September 2016 of £1 billion.
You would think that increasing its safety and travel warnings for countries like Tunisia, and perhaps taking a small hit in financial terms, would not be too injurious. It may even have saved a few lives.
As a travel agent it would certainly pay to keep this cautionary tale top of mind when your next client comes knocking with an urge to travel somewhere potentially dangerous.
Richie Kenzie is Managing Editor of Travel Weekly
* AFTA were consulted in relation to this article but declined to comment