Russian visitors give Tunisia tourism a boost

Tourism revenues in the North African country are down more than 60 per cent compared with 2019 figures

With its economy hit hard by the pandemic, Tunisia is counting on Russians and eastern Europeans to salvage its tourist sector, whose employees fear hunger more than Covid-19.

"The need to work is stronger than the fear of being contaminated," said lifeguard Aymen Abdallah, glancing at a half-empty beach in the Mediterranean resort of Sousse, where Russians are making a comeback.

"If we don't work, we'll starve to death," Mr Abdallah said.

The lifeguard is relieved to be back at work after an idle eight months. But "normally, the beach would have been full at this time", he said.

The North African country reopened its borders to tour operators in late April but then ordered a new week-long partial lockdown at the start of May because of a surge in coronavirus case numbers.

Up to 10 flights a week, mostly from Russia and eastern Europe, have in the past month touched down at Enfidha, an airport serving Tunisia's tourism towns.

But revenues are down more than 60 per cent on 2019, before the pandemic hit.

Hotels are authorised to operate at 50 per cent of capacity but are struggling to reach even that level.

"There's not much profit with just 30 per cent hotel occupancy," said Adel Mlayah, deputy director of the high-end Mouradi Palace in Sousse.

The hotel normally employs at least 260 staff, but this year no more than 120 are working.

Eastern Europe also came to the rescue after the 2015 jihadist attacks on the capital's Bardo Museum and in Sousse that killed 60 people, all but one of them tourists, bringing a crucial sector in Tunisia's economy to its knees.

While visitors from most western countries are deterred from travel by their governments, those from Russia, the Czech Republic and Poland appeared to have few such qualms.

"There are not that many countries where we can go," said Andrej Radiokove, newly arrived from Moscow. "Turkey closed its borders – that's why we chose Tunisia."

Like most of the others in his tour group, he has not been vaccinated.

"We had Covid two months ago, so we're not scared," he said.

About 2 per cent of Tunisia's population has so far been vaccinated.

The pandemic has claimed more than 12,000 lives in the country of 12 million people. But the high local toll does not appear to have deterred the sun-seekers.

Around the pool of the Mouradi Palace, a clutch of them swayed to the rhythm of Russian electronic music.

"Customers from eastern Europe are less than reticent, less concerned about the pandemic," said Zied Maghrebi, marketing director of the nearby Movenpick hotel.

"We have fallen back on these customers because they're not afraid to travel."

Serafim Stoynovski, 22, a Bulgarian law student, said that he chose Tunisia because "restrictions here are not as strict" as in other countries.

"We can go out for a walk, go to a restaurant or have a coffee if we want," he said.

Unlike other tourists who have to self-isolate for five to seven days in government-assigned hotels at their own expense, those in tour groups need only a negative PCR test.

Excursions, however, are restricted to tours organised by travel agents who adhere to health protocols, said Sousse tourism commissioner Taoufik Gaied.

He hopes to welcome a million tourists in 2021, still just a fraction of the nine million who came two years ago.

A decade since the 2011 revolution, Tunisia's economic woes are compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown measures.

The International Monetary Fund expects the country's economy to grow 3.8 per cent this year, making up little of the ground lost by an 8.9 per cent contraction in 2020.

Updated: May 26, 2021 12:24 PM

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