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Elham AbolFateh

Tourism

Tourists Return to Tunisia، but Slowly

Sada El Balad
Edited By: Nada Moustafa
Simon Marsov، a 25-year-old management consultant from Moscow، flew to the resort town of Sousse، Tunisia، by the Mediterranean last summer because he wanted to experience a foreign place on the cheap، The New York Times Reported.

Lalioui Faouzi، a 26-year-old dentist from Algiers، said he made the 11-hour drive in late summer to Hammamet، another resort on Tunisia’s east coast، because the hotels were cheaper than those in Algeria، the beaches were livelier and he didn’t need a visa.

Visitors from Algeria and Russia arrived in record numbers in 2016 and helped save Tunisia’s seaside hotels from a second abysmal summer.

Western Europeans continued to largely shun the small North African country in the wake of two massacres of tourists in 2015. But now there are signs that Tunisia’s Continental visitors are returning، giving rise to hopes that the hobbled tourism industry might get back on its feet this year.
The major package-tour operators Thomas Cook and TUI Group say that they are seeing growing bookings from France and Germany، traditionally Tunisia’s biggest sources of European visitors. Some hotels، like the Golden Tulip Carthage، say they are as busy as they were before the 2011 revolution in Tunisia، which fueled the so-called Arab Spring in the region. And tourism officials، noting tight security and no terrorist attacks on tourists in the past two years، note that the number of foreign arrivals has jumped by more than a third in the first four months of this year.

Still، the overall number of foreign visitors to this crossroads of Arab، African and European cultures، and home to a stunning collection of Roman ruins، remains well below that of the peak years before the revolution: 4.5 million last year، compared with 6.9 million in 2010.

Tourism was picking up in 2013 and 2014، but the cruises stopped coming when their passengers were among the 21 fatally gunned down by extremists at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis in March 2015.

Three months later، 38 sunbathers and hotel guests — 30 of them British — were shot dead in a rampage by a lone assailant at a beachfront resort near Sousse.

Britain imposed a countrywide travel ban، which is still in effect، and a number of nations including the United States warned against travel to certain parts of Tunisia، like the southeast region bordering Libya.

“That was a knockout،” said Zouhair Mbarek، whose Batouta Voyages & Events company used to organize cultural tours for Western and Japanese tourists.

The scent of sunblock on sunburned Western tourists vanished from the pool decks and seaside promenades that summer.

While other operators folded، Mr. Mbarek switched to local and corporate clients and started new companies in business coaching and video. He said his travel business had been in a slump until the end of last summer، when the Chinese started coming.

In his office in Tunis in September، he joked about popping champagne when a Hong Kong travel agent committed to sending seven culture-tour groups in the coming months. Since then، he has had groups of 20 to 30 Chinese tourists arriving each week، trooping to cities like Douz، on the edge of the Sahara in the southwest، and Kairouan، home to one of Islam’s holiest mosques، in the north-central region.

Now his tourism trade is about half of what it was before the revolution. But like many others in the industry، he knows that the country will be dogged not only by its own political and economic troubles and the continuing Mideast turmoil، but also by the chaos and violence in neighboring Libya، where the Islamic State is fighting to secure strongholds.

“Tourism will not recover very soon in Tunisia until Libya returns to calm،” Mr. Mbarek said.

In the meantime، the industry has been trying to fix what hotel owners، tour operators and former and current tourism officials admit was a broken model: marketing Tunisia for decades almost exclusively as a cheap، sea-and-sun، package-tour destination. They neglected the country’s cultural sites، missed out on the book-it-yourself digital revolution and largely ignored other sources like Eastern Europe، Asia and the Middle East. After a decade، they are still debating whether to open Tunis to low-cost carriers like Ryanair.

The first priority was security. Now black-uniformed police officers with assault rifles are stationed under big umbrellas at resort roundabouts and in armored trucks on the French-colonial boulevards of the capital.

Before 2015، hotels in Tunisia had hardly any security. Now they check the trunks and undercarriages of vehicles pulling up to the gates، and the higher-end hotels have metal detectors.

The police also monitor the routes of tourists traveling to historic sites like the Roman ruins of the ancient mountaintop city of Dougga. There، on an early afternoon، the only sounds amid the second- and third-century temples and stone streets rutted by chariot wheels were bleating sheep and the wind blowing through olive trees — and my tour guide’s ringing cellphone as the police called to check on us.

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