A shadow has been cast over a recovery in international tourism to Tunisia amid reports of rioting by anti-alcohol protesters.

Bars and shops were attacked on Saturday as religious tensions rose in the birthplace of the Arab spring uprisings, the Sunday Times reported.

Followers of a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam called Salafists rioted in protest at the arrest of four men in connection with previous attacks on alcohol sellers in the northwestern town of Jendouba. Police responded with tear gas.

The rioters threw rocks and petrol bombs at the police station and security base where the men were being held, setting fire to the station.

Officials said police fanned out across the town to protect shops and public buildings from attack. Jendouba, which is near the coast, is close to an ancient Roman city.

Residents said they had been terrified by a mob of about 500 rioters, according to the newspaper.

“Masked Salafis armed with swords, petrol bombs and rocks attacked shops in the town and destroyed the goods inside and then set fire to the police station,” said a witness. “The whole town is in a state of alarm and fear.”

Salafists had fought alcohol vendors in the central town of Sidi Bouzid last week, prompting the justice minister to promise they would be punished.

A moderate Islamic party, Ennahada, won Tunisia’s first elections since the revolt in October. It formed a coalition with two non-religious parties and has promised not to ban alcohol and not to impose the veil or make sharia, Islamic law, the basis of the justice system.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office points out that a state of emergency remains in place in the country yet says that most visits to Tunisia are trouble free.

Travel advice regarding local travel was reviewed six days ago, saying:  “Because of the unpredictability of social tensions and demonstrations, including unofficial roadblocks and an increase in the levels of crime, if you wish to visit sights in the interior it is recommended that you do so with an approved local guide or reputable tour operator.

“Please also note that tourists wanting to visit the southern border areas have to obtain permission from the Tunisian authorities to enter certain desert areas on the borders with Algeria and the southern military zones and must travel with licensed guides and/or military escorts – you should seek advice from a reputable agent.”