Giant leap: Tunisia’s tourism industry has great potential.
The National Geographic recently put Tunisia on the list of the “top destinations of 2015”. It was also the “country of the year 2014”, according to The Economist. These are great achievements for a country that has gone through a revolution, a democratic transition and four parliamentary and presidential elections in four years.
One must bear in mind, moreover, that Tunisia is facing huge economic and security issues. Both affect tourism, which has long been a vital sector of the national economy. Positive coverage in international magazines can prove quite helpful in this context.
Tourism has long offered Tunisia opportunities. In the year 2010, the sector accounted for seven percent of GDP and more than 20 % of Tunisia’s revenues in foreign currencies. Tourists spent so much money in the country, that they plugged 56 % of its trade deficit. Moreover, the tourism industry employed about 85,000 people and indirectly kept another 315,000 in their jobs. Some 14 million visitors came to Tunisia in 2010, and the industry generated revenues worth $ 12.5 billion.
Among Tunisia’s tourist attractions are its cosmopolitan capital city of Tunis, the ancient ruins of Carthage, the Muslim and Jewish quarters of Djerba and many beach resorts. About 95 % of the hotel beds are near the eastern coast. Europeans appreciate the country as a sunny summer getaway. Tunisia benefits from its location on the Mediterranean Sea.
Tourism money matters to the hotel, airline, restaurant and retail-shopping industries. Tourists mean jobs for tour operators, drivers, porters, guides at cultural and nature sights, travel agents, market traders and others. The sector provides opportunities to entrepreneurs and allows other industries to grow.
Tunisia’s tourism has encountered numerous devastating obstacles in recent years however. Tourist numbers dropped because of the Gulf War of 1990, and again after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. The bombing of a synagogue in Djerba in 2002 was a problem, and so was the US-led Iraq war. Nonetheless, tourism always recovered. We must hope that will be the case once more after the recent attack on Bardo Museum in Tunis.
The revolution in 2011, however, proved to be an even greater challenge. In view of the popular uprising and the fall of dicator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali regime, a number of foreign governments issued travel warnings. Tour operators rerouted their customers and cancelled pre-booked trips. Hotel-occupancy in major tourism areas dropped to very low levels, leaving small tourism entrepreneurs with little to no income.
After Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, 210,000 tourists left the country in the last week of January alone, causing revenues to drop by $ 178 million. All in all, Tunisia counted only 4.7 million tourists in 2011, a mere third of the comparative figure for 2010.
By April 2011, with some travel warnings lifted, tourists slowly began to return to Tunisia. But following the September 2012 attacks on the U.S. embassy in Tunis and the American Cooperative School, the sector declined again. Terrorism and Islamist agitation have had a tremendously negative impact.
Political instability added to the problems. The Ministry of Tourism did not even manage to respond to negative messages the media spread after terror events. The cabinet kept changing. Since January 2011, six different ministers have been in charge of tourism. In such circumstances, it was impossible to sustain any public-relations strategy. The Ministry only began to get a grip on things again last year.
All in all, the sector employs about 22,000 less people today than it did in early 2011. Seasonal employment has suffered in particular.
However, things have begun to improve again. Unlike Egypt and Libya, Tunisia has embarked on a journey to democracy. The country now has a new constitution, on the basis of which the new parliament and the new president were elected. The successful transition to a new order can help to regain foreigners’ interest.
Tunisia can now market itself as a “start-up democracy”, a term first used by Amal Karboul, who was tourism minister from early 2014 to early 2015. Karboul devised a marketing strategy that stressed Tunisia’s progressive achievements. Her social-media approach was very popular, and her obsession with selfies resonated with the public. She insisted that using social media could be a very cost-effective alternative to conventional advertising.
She made other steps in the right direction too. In close cooperation, the Ministries of Tourism and Culture organised the Electronic Dunes Music Festival last year. The event took place in the landscape where a Star Wars movie was made. The Electronic Revolution Festival followed on the beach of Korbous. In Februray, the Second Electronic Dunes attracted an audience of 8.000 paying participants from Tunisia and Europe.
Of course, tourism is not only about the Sahara, the coastal areas and archaeological sites. Inland cities, where jobs are needed badly, can benefit too. So far, however, cultural tourism has not been developed properly. The attractions of many towns should be made better known, and the government would be well advised to draft a strategy accordingly.
There is untapped potential. For instance, the Capsian people were the first human civilisation in Tunisia. They settled 12,000 years ago in what is now the town of Gasfa. The town’s region has a great cultural heritage, but it remains, like other central and southern cities, marginalised in economic and social terms. Tourism could make a difference.
Moreover, Tunisia should develop something like a revolution tourism. Many people are angry because it has not been documented properly how they toppled the dictatorship. By tackling the country’s recent history, museums, exhibitions and high-level events could attract many visitors.
Tourism accounts for about 12 % of Tunisia’s total employment. The sector needs a strong strategy. Its success is vital for economic recovery, but is affected by travellers’ security concerns. Related issues must be addressed fast and effectively. Since the formation of the new government, there still have been delays in passing a new terrorism law. The law is urgently needed. Attrocities like in Tunis must not be allowed to happen again.
The entire Tunisian economy needs a complete overhaul and a comprehensive vision moreover. Attracting more tourists is part of the solution, but it is not the solution in itself. Tunisia must get solid government budgeting, good macroeconomic management and policies that promote investment.
It is the collective responsibility of the government, the media, the entrepreneurs and Tunisian citizens to draw the country’s tourism sector into a profitable direction. The image of the culturally diverse, geographically stunning and historically rich country needs to be promoted. It would be helpful, moreover, if Europeans understood that spending holiday money here is a contribution to stabilising Tunisia as the Arab region’s first constitutional democracy.
This essay was updated on 19 March 2015.
All the figures in the essay are from Tunisia’s statistics bureau.
Aya Chebbi is Tunisian blogger.
Blog: Proudly Tunisian