PARIS - Tunisia's tourism sector, already badly damaged by the 2011 revolution, is set for another massive setback following Wednesday's brazen attack on the national museum in Tunis which left 19 people dead, including 17 foreign tourists.
"This is bad for tourism but also for Tunisia, its economy, the spirit of freedom which seemed to be emerging," Jean-Pierre Mas, head of the French National Union of Travel Agencies (SNAV) told AFP.
The tourism fallout could spread to other Muslim countries, he added.
"There is no panic," assured Mas, who said he was in close contact with the foreign ministry. "We can only recommend that travellers in Tunis exercise great caution."
Japanese, Italian, Spanish and Colombian nationals were among the tourists killed in the daytime attack on the Bardo National Museum, a famed repository of ancient artefacts.
A Tunisian national and a policeman were also reported dead along with two gunmen.
French, South African and Polish nationals were said to be among more than 40 people injured in the attack.
Tunisia's tourism industry provides a living for a tenth of the population, employing 400,000 directly and accounting for seven per cent of the country's GDP.
Tour groups and families are the main incomers and Tunisia's national tourism office warned that a downturn would have a knock-on effect on "a great number of economic sectors; trade, transport, crafts, communications, agriculture and building."
The United Nations World Tourism Organisation condemned Wednesday's "terrible attack" and the group's head Taleb Rifai stressed in a statement that the tourism sector is "vital for the economy" and that the UNWTO will do all it can to support it.
Despite the pull of resorts such as Hammamet and Sfax, islands including Djerba and heritage sites such as those at Kairouan, Nabeul and Sousse, the uprising of 2011, which overthrew dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had already taken its toll.
Last year the number of tourists visiting Tunisia fell a further 3.2 per cent to just over six million people, according to official figures.
In 2010 some seven million foreign tourists showed up.
In January there was word of a "recovery" in numbers of visitors from Britain, Germany and Italy but lower figures arriving from the likes of France, Russia and Scandinavia.
Tourism Minister Amel Karboul recently noted a fresh drop in French tourist arrivals since a deadly Islamist attack against the Paris offices of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in January.
Tunisia will still have a stall at the international travel fair opening in Paris on Thursday.
The show's president Marianne Chandernagor spoke of a "snowball effect" of the Arab Spring uprisings and subsequent terror attacks.
Contacted by AFP, the group TUI France said it currently has no customers present in Tunis, but cancelled all excursions for its 437 tourists at the club Marmara in Djerba.
Last September, the assassination of French tourist Herve Gourdel in Algeria weighed heavily on hotels in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.