After the terrorism: Why you should visit the good places where bad things have happened

Who was it an attack upon? Who was the target? When the gunshots rang out on the beach in Sousse​, Tunisia, when tourists ran for cover, when they sprinted for their lives, who was in the firing line?

Conventional wisdom has it that the attack by a lone gunman in Tunisia earlier this year was an assault on the West. That the tourists from France, Germany and Britain  were the ultimate targets, that this was a statement of intent, a declaration of war on Western values, a frightening sign of the spread of Islamic State. 

It's the same as it was at the Bardo​ Museum in the nation's capital, Tunis, a few months earlier, when terrorists stormed the building and began firing indiscriminately. Tourists were the target. The West was being challenged.  And that's probably true. But there was another victim in all of this mess, one that's often forgotten. Perhaps it was the ultimate victim, the true target after all: Tunisia. 

What happened to Tunisia? In our grief and our fear, and with a grim roll call of subsequent heinous events, we forgot to check; we didn't even think to ask. Security warnings were put in place. Travel plans were altered. We moved on to the next destination, the next attraction – even the next disaster. Tunisia was struck off the list, put it in a box with Egypt and Libya and Syria and Iran. No-go zones. Enemies.

What happened to Tunisia? Tourism dwindled, that's what. An industry was shattered. Travellers can forget one tragedy, one act of terror. But two horrifying acts? A few months apart? In which tourists were directly targeted? That's the death knell for tourism in any country, let alone one as precariously positioned, geographically and politically, as Tunisia.  

These aren't just stories of some faraway land, they're tales of real people going through hardship.

This great country, this beautiful country, this friendly, culturally rich, historically significant country, has few friends these days. It's the birthplace of the Arab Spring, but its move towards democracy remains on shaky ground, its ties to the West tenuous.

More Tunisians than any other nationality have gone to fight with IS. This country has a history that connects it directly to Italy, to Spain, and to Arabia, and yet it's now largely alone in its battle with internal forces.

Tunisia was a target in those terrorist attacks. The shootings were an assault on the country's global reputation, an attempt to destroy an industry and a society. And as someone who has visited the country recently, and who's had such an amazing experience there, it hurts to see it.

It's the same as it hurts to see bad things happen to any good place you've been to – from Paris to London, to Mumbai, to Madrid. Bad things can happen to good places, and if you've had personal experience with them, you feel their pain. If you've been to Paris you'll be feeling that city's pain, even more acutely than the rest of the world. It's the same, for me, with Tunisia.

I was there about six months ago, after the Bardo Museum attack, but before the shooting in Sousse. Even then, the country was on tenterhooks. It seemed safe enough to visit, friendly and welcoming, but all you had to do was peel back a few layers – to notice the national guard vans that followed my tour group wherever we went, to hear from locals of the collective holding of breath – to realise all was not completely well with Tunisia.

In a sense, I was there at what was the perfect time to visit. There are some amazing historical sites in Tunisia, from the ruined Roman city of Dougga, complete with intact theatre and capitol building, to the Roman mosaics in museums in Tunis and Sousse​, the ruins of Carthage, the Phoenician ruins of Utica​, and the Roman amphitheatre in El Djem​ – the third-largest in the world. When I visited, all of those places were virtually devoid of other tourists, a far cry from the crush you feel in Rome or Barcelona or London. 

It was a pleasure to stroll the medinas​ and know I was one of the very few tourists in the entire city. However, that pleasure was tempered with the knowledge that Tunisia's tourism industry was in such decline, and with the obvious desperation of those whose livelihoods depended upon people like me.

And that was before the second attack.

My guide from that Peregrine Adventures tour, Amine, a local from Sousse who was educated as a biologist and speaks five languages fluently, has had to move to Oman to find work. There's little for tour guides to do in Tunisia any more. Peregrine still has three tours guaranteed to run in Tunisia next year, although the company continues to monitor the situation closely, particularly given Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has set its warning for visitors to Tunisia to "reconsider your need to travel".

"It's always difficult to know how long it will take for things to settle down and when we'll start seeing an increase in interest again," says James Thornton, managing director of Intrepid Travel, the parent company of Peregrine.

"Egypt is still suffering from the unrest of 2013. Often it comes down to public perception.

"I was in Egypt in February to see how the country has recovered and can attest that for the most part the atmosphere was good, the people desperately want tourists back and as there are so few there at the moment that it's actually a good time to visit. Going to the pyramids was like being on a private tour."

That's the thing: Tunisia isn't alone in its struggle to regain the tourist dollar. There are plenty of countries that depend heavily on foreign visitors to prop up their economy, and yet are now struggling due to forces largely beyond their control. Some have been through recent horror; others are just suffering from a misplaced bad reputation.

France, in the short-term, will struggle. The recent attacks in Paris will unnerve plenty of potential visitors, restricting a usually reliable flow of tourists and Euros into the country.

Closer to home, too, there are issues. Consider Vanuatu, where almost 70 per cent of the nation's GDP is contributed by travel and tourism. The devastation caused there in March by Cyclone Pam wasn't limited to infrastructure or direct loss of life – what was even harder hit was the country's reputation. 

Travellers are often risk-averse when it comes to planning holidays, and scenes like those in Port Vila after the cyclone aren't easy to erase from the memory. Never mind that the country is back up and running, almost at full capacity, or that some of the islands weren't even touched by the cyclone. It's going to take a while for tourism in Vanuatu to completely bounce back.

But they will return. Probably a lot sooner than they'll return to somewhere like Libya, a country I've long dreamed of visiting, to see sights like the huge Roman city of Leptis Magna. And probably sooner than they'll begin booking trips to Egypt, which is still suffering the effects of the 2013 unrest, and was hit again recently with the bombing of the Russian Metrojet flight. Travellers won't forget that for a long time.

You feel for Egypt, just the same as you feel for Tunisia and France and Vanuatu. Particularly if you've been there. If you've visited the country and met the people, you can humanise the tragedy, you can put a face on the news of lost livelihoods and troubled times. These aren't just stories of some faraway land, they're tales of real people going through hardship. In some cases, people you've come to count as friends.

And it's worse when you see it happening to countries that don't even deserve it, places that have been caught up in the global maelstrom. Many African countries are suffering losses in tourism numbers because of the Ebola crisis – despite the fact most of these places are completely unaffected, in some cases lying thousands of kilometres from the virus-affected areas. It's just an association that travellers get into their heads: Africa equals Ebola. Stay away for now. 

Or what about Iran, a country I've written about many times, a member of the so-called "Axis of Evil" that has a travel warning as strong as Tunisia's, despite not a single incident of tourists being targeted in the country.

When you're there, Iran seems like one of the friendliest, most welcoming countries you could hope to visit, and yet still Australia's DFAT [Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] tells travellers to "reconsider your need to travel", and still the country is generally thought of as our enemy among the West.

You feel for those people who are directly affected – the carpet shop owners in Esfahan, the tour guides in Shiraz, the restaurant owners in Tehran, the hoteliers in Yazd​. They're real people caught out by global politics.

There's hope for these countries though, for places like Tunisia and Libya and Iran. Twenty years ago, you would have been considered a travel pioneer if you visited Cambodia – however, these days even the greenest tourist has the Temples of Angkor on their bucket list.

Most people avoided Peru during the troubles with the Shining Path in the 1980s, but the country is now wildly popular with Australians. Reputations die hard, but they do die. Countries can transform themselves. Industries can recover. Tourists will return.

My purpose here isn't to tell you to go to these countries now, to persuade you to ignore the warnings, or to say that somewhere like Tunisia is actually safe. Maybe it's not. But what I am hoping is that people won't think of Tunisia as our enemy. And I'm hoping people won't permanently delete places like Egypt and Libya and Iran from their future travel plans.

Bad things happen to good places. But they'll recover. And they'll need your help to do it.

Ben Groundwater visited Tunisia as a guest of Peregrine Adventures.

See also: The destinations that need us