TUNIS, Tunisia — Thirty-eight tourists died in a gun attack just days before Tunisia planned to implement heightened security measures for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, but those plans had not anticipated an assault on tourist beaches, the country's president said Tuesday.
Tunisia's worst terrorist attack is expected to cripple the vital tourism sector, with the tourism minister predicting a half billion dollars in losses for 2015.
In an interview with Europe 1 radio, President Beji Caid Essebsi said an investigation was underway into security failures, and there would now be armed tourist police on the beaches and army reservists had been called up.
"It is not a perfect system — it is true we were surprised by this affair," he said. "They took measures for the month of Ramadan but never did they think the attack would be on the beaches against tourists and the system of protection was set to start July 1."
Essebsi, 88, is a veteran of Tunisia's pre-revolutionary regime and was elected last fall on a platform of restoring security and dignity to the state.
Tunisia's vital tourism sector suffered a staggering blow when a young electric engineering student pulled out an assault rifle at a beach near Sousse and killed 38 tourists, mostly Britons. The rampage continued for around half an hour before he was shot by police.
Since the attack, authorities have shut 80 unregulated mosques believed to preach radical doctrine, and have considered closing organizations and political parties promoting ideas counter to the constitution.
"What is threatened is our way of life and society," Essebsi said, praising Tunisia as one of the only democracies in the region. "It is not easy being the exception, we should be the model, but it is a model not yet accepted by the others."
He said Tunisia needs more assistance in securing its frontiers, especially with Libya, home to supporters of the radical Islamic State group which claimed responsibility for the attack.
In a press conference late on Monday, Tourism Minister Samia Elloumi outlined a series of measures to cushion the industry from an expected loss of just over $500 million following the attack.
She said debts and taxes for tourist companies would be rescheduled, new loans guaranteed by the state would be offered and transport taxes for non-resident Tunisians would be cut.
Most important for foreigners, the $15 departure tax will be scrapped and visa requirements will be been lifted for visitors from China, India, Iran and Jordan.
The current tourism promotion campaign would also be pulled.
"It would be indecent and not send a positive message to put out such a campaign while the bodies of the victims are still there and people remain in shock," she said.
Associated Press writer Paul Schemm contributed to this report from Rabat, Morocco.