Tunisia’s silver lining


(eTN) – Revolutions are notoriously bad for business, and Tunisia’s sudden January uprising has proved to be no exception. In the three months that have passed since that extraordinary showing of people power, visitor numbers have plummeted by no less than 50 percent, with a similar drop in tourism revenue.

But despite the fact that the ongoing turmoil in North Africa continues to scare people away from the region, Tunisia’s tourism chief is very upbeat about the shape of things to come.

“The revolution will help boost our tourism industry in the mid- to long-term,” declared Habib Ammar, director of the Tunisian National Tourist Office (TNTO). “We’ve suffered from a negative image in the past. There was no freedom of expression and journalists were even banned from coming here. Tunisia is now a democratic country where people feel liberated and journalists can come and go as they want. I’m confident that our visitor numbers will triple or even quadruple over the next five years.”

The fact that the country’s tourism infrastructure remains largely intact should help facilitate a quick recovery. Hotels are operating normally, the transport network is flowing freely, and all the top visitor attractions are open for business.

“It’s most important that tourists come back to Tunisia. As a destination we’ve only fulfilled about 20 percent of our potential so far, and now with a more stable business environment in place, my feeling is that we can multiply this by five times over the next ten years,” Habib Ammar said.

The first step towards this will be a new €25 million advertising campaign shortly to be unveiled by Ammar and his team. Running for the next six months, it is designed to restore people’s confidence in a country that lies perilously close to a war zone. “People look at the map and see Tunisia and Libya next door to each other, so the idea of the campaign is to create a positive impression and reassure the world that Tunisia is once again a safe place to visit,” he explained.

Issam Khereddine, the former regional tourism director for Italy and later for the Iberian peninsula, is currently based in the TNTO head-office in Tunis. He echoed Habib Ammar’s sense of optimism with the suggestion that now is the best time to visit a country that is finally on the right track after decades of economic stagnation.

“We are going through a very interesting period. It isn’t easy for a country to get rid of a dictatorial regime, so we’re very proud of what we’ve achieved. Visitors now have the opportunity to come here and share in this experience by talking to the Tunisian people. The revolution has removed all the communication barriers and brought everyone closer together,” he said.

Tunisia’s product portfolio needs no introduction; the country has been a popular tourism destination since the 1970s. So besides talking to the local people about one of the quickest and most peaceful revolutions on record, visitors can do what they’ve always done in Tunisia – relax on long, sandy beaches; explore some of the world’s most important archaeological sites; soak up 3,000 years of history; and get a true taste of Islamic culture.

“For people looking to acquaint themselves with the Arab world, Tunisia is the best place to start,” added Khereddine.

Down in the southwest of the country on the edge of the Sahara desert, the pace might be slower but people’s expectations run just as high. Wahid Benfrej, director of the Tozeur tourist region, is reviewing his promotional policy in the wake of the recent uprising.

“I feel that the January revolution has created an opportunity for us to find new ways to promote the destination. In the case of Tozeur, we want to organize more cultural tours and focus on the region’s characteristics,” he explained.

Transportation is still a sticky issue in this part of the country as the national carrier, Tunisair, strives to retain its grip on the main routes in and out of Tozeur airport. According to the results of a recent study, the local travel trade is anxious to see the arrival of low-cost carriers in the region, which will help boost visitor numbers and raise the profile of one of North Africa’s most appealing destinations.

“Tozeur’s high-season runs from November to April, which is perfect for low-cost flight operations. We have a very different product here with the Sahara Desert, an abundance of palm tress and various oases, plus the climate is quite unique, because in winter, many European countries have temperatures between 10 and 15º C, sometimes less, while in Tozeur the average temperature is 20º C,” Benfrej concluded.