Against heavy odds, Egypt and Tunisia are trying to woo back tourists with campaigns making use of the social media, celebrities, new slogans and a dose of image re-branding.
Both countries, whose travel industries were pummeled by Arab Spring unrest, are using London’s World Travel Market conference, an annual gathering of thousands of travel professionals, to make a pitch to the industry this week. But they face an uphill effort as the smoke of revolution hasn’t quite dissipated and Europe, a key source of tourists, looks to be slipping into recession.
“Tunisia and Egypt started to reinvent themselves in a new democratic era with a successful transition in place,” Euromonitor International said in a report released this week. “Selling new democracies will appeal to those feeling a renewed sense of Arabism.”
Nevertheless, Caroline Bremner, head of the consulting firm’s travel and tourism research, forecast that tourist arrivals to Egypt will fall 3% a year on a compounded basis between 2010 and 2015. Tunisia’s will drop 1% as the two “struggle to maintain safety and stability.”
Both countries badly need to bring back tourists if they are going to revive their moribund economies. Tunisia’s tourism sector employs 400,000 people and is worth about $2.5 billion in a normal year, but the National Tourist Office estimates arrivals have fallen 45% this year.
Egypt, which counts on tourism for about 15% of its gross domestic product and of employment, saw industry revenue plummet by fourth fifths in the last holiday season, Tourism Minister Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour said last month. The government expects tourism revenue to fall to $10 billion this year from $12.5 billion in 2010.
“Tourism can help build up these countries’ new democracies and has the potential to do so across all the Arab Spring countries,” WTM Chairwoman Fiona Jeffery said. “The speed at which the marketing campaigns have been launched demonstrates the importance the new democracies in Egypt and Tunisia have put on inbound tourism for their long-term economic future.”
Revolution is both a selling point and an obstacle to luring tourists. In the months after their dictators ousted – Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali last January and Egypt’s Husni Mubarak a month later – the two countries hoped the transition to democracy would make them more attractive.
Egypt devised come-ons like “Welcome to the country of peaceful revolution” and “Tahrir – a square rocks the world,” a reference to the place where mass protests occurred. Tunisia had “They say that in Tunisia, some people receive heavy-handed treatment” above a picture of a woman enjoying a massage.
But revolution appears to be out now as the two countries wrestle the uncomfortable aftershocks of the unrest. In Egypt, 28 people were killed a month ago at a Cairo demonstration, crime in the streets is rampant and sectarian violence erupts periodically. In Tunisia, the Islamic Ennahda Party led in elections for a constituent assembly amid charges that it wants to ban two tourism-industry mainstays – skimpy swimwear on women and alcohol.
This week Egyptian Tourism Authority unveiled a new slogan, “We’re Egypt” accompanied by the message: “We are friendly, we are open-minded, we are proud of our country, we are Egypt, see you soon in Egypt.”
Tunisian Tourism Minister Mehdi Haouas said at the WTM conference that he opposes using the revolution as a marketing tool. “The revolution was ours and we don’t want to sell it. It helped us and helped other countries, but it’s not something you can theme up,” he told London’s Telegraph newspaper.
With Islamists coming to power, that might explain another aspect of Tunisia’s new orientation – away from emphasizing sun-and-fun holidays in bikinis and stressing instead the country’s historic sites, which can be enjoyed fully dressed and sober.
The Euromonitor report said Egypt and Tunisia are the only two Arab Spring countries to have “strong” rebranding potential, but it also forecast a 6.2% decline in tourist arrivals to the Middle East this year. Next year will only experience a modest 1.3% increase, which means the industry will still be trying to claw back to pre-Arab Spring levels for some time to come.
Meanwhile, Middle East countries that have been spared violence and revolution are attracting a bigger share of the shrinking market.
Turkey reported that an estimated 1.2 million French tourists – a key source of tourists for Tunisia – traveled to country from January to September, a 45% leap from the same time in 2010. Meanwhile, an estimated 1.4 million Arabs visited as well, a jump from about 912,000 in 2009. In Dubai, hotels hosted 6.64 million guests in the first nine months of the year, an increase of 11% from the same time in 2010, according to the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing.
One way, they hope to separate themselves from the pack and send the message that all is safe and well is to invite celebrities and have them photographed in front of top attractions. Egypt is way ahead on this, hosting American actor Sean Penn in October for sightseeing at the Egyptian Museum, the Giza Pyramids and Tahrir Square.
Tunisia’s Haouas publicly invited Prince William, the second in line to the British throne, and his wife to visit as well as some as yet unnamed French celebrities. He suggested singer Elton John as another candidate.
But if it lags on celebrity appearances, Tunisia is in the forefront of social media marketing. Its National Tourist Office has launched official Facebook and Twitter pages that showcase the country’s beaches and golf courses and tout the benefits of thalassotherapy (seawater) therapy. Visitors can upload videos and pictures to share information and experiences in a campaign highlighted by WTM as a case study.
“By investing in our online presence, we will be able to reach out to travelers in a very modern and open way, an approach that would not have been possible before the revolution.” said Anissa Ramoundi, UK and Ireland director of the Tunisian National Tourist Office.