LONDON—European travel companies rushed Saturday to retrieve thousands of tourists on package tours to Tunisia after widespread protests toppled the North African nation's longtime president and brought chaos to some cities.
Tour companies in Britain and Germany began sending planes to Tunisia to bring back tourists anxious to return home. The French national travel agency association, CETO, said French tour operators planned to evacuate tourists shortly and urged people planning trips to Tunisia in the next few days to cancel their plans.
Tunisia in recent years has become a popular sun-and-sand destination for Europeans looking to escape wintry weather, and the uprising there caught tour operators by surprise after a sustained period of stability.
More than 1,000 tourists arrived in Britain on Saturday after being evacuated from Tunisia, with several hundred more expected to arrive on special flights Sunday.
"It was quite scary but I was never in fear for my life," said Mary Grist , a retiree who arrived at Manchester Airport from Tunisia on Saturday. "What we have seen is the aftermath, burned-out petrol stations and the army lining the streets with their guns."
She said she and others who entered Tunisia on Wednesday should have been told about the spreading unrest and given the option of canceling their trip then. "I think we should have been warned but they didn't so here we are, two-and-a-half days later, back home," she said.
Others described a frightening atmosphere as gasoline stations were burned, store windows were smashed and armed soldiers patrolled the streets.
German companies were scrambling to repatriate more than 5,000 tourists in Tunisia. Thomas Cook's German subsidiary successfully brought back 200 German tourists from Tunisia Friday, but 1,800 were still in the country, with many scheduled to be flown out Saturday.
Rewe Group said Saturday it was starting to bring back its 2,100 clients currently in Tunisia and tour operator TUI /zigman2/quotes/206714402/delayed DE:TUI1 +2.58% AG also said Saturday it was sending planes to bring 1,000 clients back to Germany.
Britain's Foreign Office said an additional 150 to 200 Britons are known to be traveling independently in Tunisia and have registered with the embassy there.