Reports that historical “Star Wars” locations in the country are under threat from terrorists and ISIS are “without foundation,” Mohammed Sayem of Tozeur’s tourism commission told The Associated Press on Thursday.
The city of Tataouine, on the fringes of the Sahara, was made famous in 1976 when George Lucas transformed it in Luke Skywalker’s home planet, “Tatooine,” and since then the town has become a mecca for “Star Wars” fans.
Recent turmoil in the Middle East has sparked fears, however, that tourism could dry up, especially in light of a CNN report on the town on Tuesday.
“The desert and dun-colored cliffs around the town of Tataouine were once the backdrop for the movie ‘Star Wars,’ much of which was filmed in this neglected corner of Tunisia in 1976,” said the report. “This struggling town on the fringes of the Sahara still draws a few fans of the movie but now finds itself part of a real conflict, as a way-station for jihadists crossing the Libyan border 60 miles to the east.”
Tunisian officials are now seeking to dampen concerns, stating that the main sets are on the other side of the country near the more peaceful western city of Tozeur, and Col. Mokhtar Hammami of the National Guard said he had 1,500 men patrolling the area.
The heightened concern comes after the deadly terror attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis last week, when two gunmen killed 21 people with automatic weapons.
Before the attack, three young men were arrested in Tataouine as they allegedly made plans to cross into Libya to join a terrorist network, reported CNN, and two arms caches were also found in the region earlier this month, one of which included rocket-propelled grenade launchers and more than 20,000 rounds of ammunition. The weapons are thought to have been removed from a Libyan armory in the aftermath of Moammar Gadhafi’s ouster in 2011.
“Smugglers’ tracks criss-cross the endless scrub and steep, arid hills that run along the border. Gasoline, drugs and other contraband have long been smuggled across the frontier,” CNN said in its description of the region.
The image is a sharp contrast to the image the country is struggling to portray, as it relies heavily on tourism to turn around its economy.
Tunisia has taken pride in forming a democratic government since the Arab Spring revolutionary movement of late 2010 to early 2011 — in marked contrast to countries such as Egypt, Libya and Yemen — despite an upsurge in Islamic extremism.
Along with naming Skywalker’s fictional home planet after Tataouine, Lucas filmed his sci-fi classic in various locations around Tunisia, such as the Lars Homestead, which was filmed at the Hotel Sidi Driss in Matmata.
Tataouine also appeared in the end of the “The X-Files” film as Foum Tataouine, where an extraterrestrial viral experiment facility was held.
“Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens” filmed its own desert scenes last year in Abu Dhabi, with additional locations in the U.K., U.S., Ireland and Iceland.
See CNN’s map of Africa’s Islamic terror regions here.