Tunisia starts to win over tourists

Although still somewhat battle-scarred from events of the past two years in the country where the Arab Spring really ignited, there are signs that visitors are beginning to return. And Europeans are the principal market.

ZanZana, a Tunisian rock band, performs on stage at a cultural demonstration called Tounes Barsha to promote Tunisian tourism. Chedly Ben Ibrahim / Demotix / Corbis
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As holidaymakers shun Egypt amid uncertainty and fear about its turbulent post-Mubarak period, a country whose borders start 1,700 kilometres to the west is claiming success in the battle to rebuild its own tourism industry.

Like Egypt, Tunisia has faced a rocky passage in the search for a viable new order after the overthrow of an unpopular ruler.

The events leading to the removal of the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali at the beginning of 2011 launched the Arab Spring. They did not produce an immediate, calm Tunisian democracy as militants and moderates vied for power and influence.

One inevitable consequence of the uprising and subsequent unrest was a sharp decline in the fortunes of the previously buoyant tourism sector.

The number of visitors slumped from a record seven million in 2010 to under five million the following year. Holiday complexes closed and many workers who relied on the industry for employment, hotels or transport or restaurants, lost their jobs. Some later lost their lives as thousands of Tunisians boarded flimsy boats to cross the Mediterranean, their common goal a brighter new life in the West.

And those foreigners who had found Tunisia charming, especially in the biggest European market, France, turned to other destinations. The number of French visitors slumped from 1.4 million in 2010 to just 800,000 the following year.

In all, the number of visitors fell from a record seven million to under five million, lower still on some estimates. But last year, amid more hopeful signs, the numbers crept back up to six million. This year should end with a return to the 2010 peak, according to the Tunisian authorities.

The pace of recovery may seem surprising given the failure so far to turn the dreams of a better future for Tunisia into social and economic stability.

Two prominent opposition politicians have been murdered this year, leading to suspicion that extremists are attempting to hijack the democratic desires of those who took to the streets in late 2010 and early 2011 after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in the town of Sidi Bouzid provided a trigger for not only the uprising but the Arab Spring.

But the British travel industry supports the impression of revival. The Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) reported a fall between 2010 and 2011 from 420,000 British tourists to 340,000 but says the number began climbing again last year and, with this year’s bookings 20 per cent up, should again reach the 2010 level once this year is complete.

“The images on television of demonstrations, and the ease of simply choosing another country in the Mediterranean, led the numbers to drop,” says Sean Tipton, Abta’s media relations manager. “But people are realistic and rely on [Britain’s foreign ministry] to assess the risk of travelling to different countries. There is no advice not to visit Tunisia and people have taken that on board.”

In 2009, tourism accounted for about 7 per cent, more than US3 billion, of Tunisia’s GDP. The economy is expected to grow 3.6 per cent this year, although this is 0.04 per cent less than previously predicted and there is a widening deficit (7.4 per cent of GDP forecast, almost half as much again as projected), which the finance minister, Elyes Fakhfakh, who was previously tourism minister, blames on slower European growth and higher government spending.

Before his own rise in government, Mr Fakhfakh told The National during a diplomatic and media visit to Tunisia last year that he saw scope for greatly increasing the number of travellers from the UAE and elsewhere in the Gulf. “We see only about 40,000 from all the region’s countries combined,” he said.

“There is enormous potential for us in the Middle East but we must work harder to ensure there are the facilities – especially for shopping, including malls - that people expect.”

France, Germany, Britain and Russia remain the biggest markets although Mr Fakhfakh complained that French media reports sometimes gave a false impression of his country “as if it’s Afghanistan”.

Mr Fakhfakh’s successor, Jamel Gamra, is confident the industry is on course to regain its former strength. “Last year we could [have] recover[ed] two thirds of what we lost the year of the revolution and we are aiming this year to come back to the figures of 2010,” he told the BBC. Of the seven million total now predicted for this year, he said, half would be from northern Europe, taking full advantage of the higher value of the euro against the Tunisian dinar.

Mr Gamra said that with the revolution “behind us”, it was important to concentrate on improving the economic situation.

“We’re absolutely conscious of the importance of tourism for our economy,” he said. “It employs more than 400,000 people, it is the second foreign currency provider for our economy and we have to promote investment in this sector.”

Diplomatic advice varies. The US department of state’s most recent bulletin, although published in March and arguably out of date, said: “The security situation in Tunisia remains unpredictable. Sporadic episodes of civil unrest have occurred throughout the country. US citizens should avoid large crowds and demonstrations as even demonstrations that are intended to be peaceful can become violent and unpredictable.”

The Canadian ambassador, Sebastien Beaulieu, was positive when talking last December about Tunisia’s possible appeal to tourists from his country. As if to prove the point, he was then travelling in southern Tunisia with his own family, albeit on an official organised tour, and had a baby strapped to his chest as he spoke at Tamerza, Tunisia’s biggest mountain oasis.

He was happy then to speak positively about Tunisia’s attractions. Ten months later, he is more circumspect, declining to confirm or update his thoughts. The Canadian government, however says that while there is “no nationwide advisory” in effect for Tunisia, visitors “should exercise a high degree of caution due to the risk of civil unrest and the heightened threat of terrorism in the region”. In particular, it cautions against non-essential travel to the Chaambi Mountain National Park area, west of Kasserine and close to the Algerian border, “due to regional tensions”.

A European diplomat was more upbeat, suggesting that despite an “unfortunate chain of events” since the revolution, people could still expect an overwhelmingly friendly welcome. “It would be wrong to suggest Tunisia was no different to anywhere else, but it has all the potential to be a great tourist destination, provided at the moment that you accept there are places you avoid on certain days.”

Britain’s foreign office (FCO) combines the prudence of Canada with the optimism of that European diplomat, saying all travel to Chaambi Mountain should be avoided following deadly attacks on soldiers amid “ongoing armed confrontation between fugitive groups and security forces”.

The FCO also mentions an increased risk of anti-western sentiment linked to the crisis in Syria. “Most visits to Tunisia are trouble-free, but you should be aware of the changeable political and security situation, and of the possibility of strikes and protests, some of which could turn violent. Protests are not normally aimed against foreigners, but international events can trigger anti-western demonstrations.“