TUNIS, June 15 (Reuters) – Tunisia is aiming for stable tourism revenue this year as it seeks out customers in new markets to offset slowing demand from recession-hit Europe, the country’s tourism minister said on Monday.
Tourism income grew 3 percent to 1.098 billion dinars ($808.5 million) in the first five months the year, defying a slowdown in spending by Western consumers, according to official data.
The industry is a lifeline for the north African country of 10 million, accounting for 360,000 jobs and generating enough revenue to cover 70 percent of the national trade deficit, according to official figures.
“It would be a good result if we achieve the same revenue as last year amid this international crisis which has made European tourists very hesitant to travel to any destination,” Tourism Minister Khelil Lajimi told Reuters in an interview.
Tunisia is North Africa’s second-biggest holiday destination after Morocco and most of its business has traditionally come from Europe, which is suffering its worst recession since World War Two.
Of the 2.2 million visitors to Tunisia in the first five months of 2009, more than 1 million were Europeans.
The government is adding more direct, long-distance flights as it seeks to draw wealthy holidaymakers from the Arabian Gulf, north America and from China.
Tunisia began developing its tourism industry four decades ago and the industry is now its main foreign currency earner and the biggest employer after labour-intensive agriculture.
The country’s tourism income grew to 3.3 billion dinars last year from 3.0 billion dinars in 2007 as it received a record 7 million visitors. Morocco had 8 million visitors in 2008.
“Estimates for the end of this year are very hard to make,” said Lajimi. “European bookings will be made at the last minute.”
But he said this year’s increase in tourism income was a positive indication of Tunisia’s ability to resist the effects of the financial crisis.
“Tunisia’s advantage is that we provide an attractive offer in terms of price and service,” said Lajimi.
The ministry had already closed many hotels and restaurants whose service was inadequate, he said.
Tunisair signed a purchase agreement last year with European planemaker Airbus as it looks to expand routes to north America and Asia.
Tunisia cut its forecast for 2009 economic growth to 4.5 percent from 5.0 percent in April, blaming recessions in major economies. Its economy grew by around 5 percent last year.