A celebratory band played as a cruise liner docked on Thursday in the port of Tunis for the first time since a March 2015 jihadist attack killed 21 tourists in the Tunisian capital.
The German-operated MS Europa motored into La Goulette with 310 passengers on board for a one-day stopover.
The tourists, cameras at the ready, were greeted by a band of soldiers playing trumpets and drums, as well as camels and North African dancing, and shopkeepers garlanded them with jasmine necklaces as they disembarked.
“It’s huge for me to be reopening my shop and it warms my heart to see life return to the village,” says 39-year-old Haifa Dargouth.
Tunisian authorities, who ordered high security for the visit, hope to lure back the big cruise operators who have abandoned the country for the past 18 months since the gun attack on the capital’s Bardo National Museum.
“The arrival of the liner Europa does not in itself signal the resumption of cruise liner activities in Tunisia,” says Malek Ghanemi, head of La Goulette’s cruise liner terminal. “But it’s very important because it sends out a positive and reassuring message.”
Salah Issa, a camel owner in his 40s who has been in tourism since he was 12 years old, is delighted to be back at work.
“This atmosphere is doing wonders for my morale,” says Issa, as he welcomes tourists and lets them sit on his camel’s multicoloured saddle for free.
“I was rotting away in unemployment” after the Bardo attack. “My camels were going hungry.”
Gabriella, a tourist from Berlin, is all smiles as she heads off for Tunis medina, or old city, a Unesco-listed World Heritage Site. “I’m not scared at all,” she says.
Tourism Minister Selma Rekik Elloumi says a Switzerland-based company is also planning a stop in Tunisia in January.
Many of the tourists who died in the March 18, 2015 attack claimed by the Islamic State jihadist group, in which a policeman was also killed, were on cruise stopovers.
Tunisia’s tourism sector has been in crisis ever since the revolution of 2011 which led to the overthrow of longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The industry used to contribute about 7 per cent of GDP and supported 400,000 jobs.
Dozens of hotels were forced to close last winter following the Bardo attack and another in June 2015 around a beach hotel in Sousse that killed 38 foreign holidaymakers including 30 Britons.
Britain continues to advise its citizens against all but essential travel to most of Tunisia.
As incense fills the air around him, businessman Maher Lassoued breathes a sigh of relief.
“The Bardo attack completely destroyed me,” says the 49-year-old, who returned to Tunisia to do business after the 2011 uprising, renting five shops in La Goulette. “For the first time in my life, I was unemployed for more than a year and unable to pay what I owed.”
But he says the cruise ship docking in Tunis has given him renewed hope. “I’m breathing with both lungs again.”