What economic recovery in Tunisia requires

Political leaders must recognise that decisiveness, rather than continued delays of needed reform, are benefit of democracy.


While Tunisians can feel proud that they have had a rather bloodless uprising in 2010 that has led to a democratic transition, many of the country’s socio-economic ills that had triggered the popular revolt have not been addressed and have only become more apparent in the country’s free media environ­ment. And while numerous countries have been helping Tunisia and continue to offer more help, the question now being asked of Tunisian authori­ties requesting additional funding is, “Let’s see your plan?”

A veteran Tunisian diplomat bemoans that “people do not want to make decisions that may be economically painful to part of the population, so they simply avoid making such decisions”.

Ever since the 2010 uprising, successive governments have yielded to social demands by acquiescing to higher salaries and more recruitment of employees in public service under trade union and street pressures. Terrorist incidents rendered the business environment even more difficult.

“It has been a less painful deci­sion for politicians to carry on big spending policies to keep people happy,” notes an American con­sultant who has lived many years in Tunisia. Rather, Tunisian politi­cians have been trying to “buy people’s happiness by spending money hiring friends and relatives for already bloated ministries and keeping subsidies which the coun­try can ill afford”.

Tunisian authorities are well aware of studies done by organi­sations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that clearly point out the country’s problems as well as the steps to remedy them. However, implementing decisive plans that address factors which inhibit eco­nomic growth, such as the bloated bureaucracy and its excessive red tape, does not seem a prior­ity. Queries as to when such plans will be implemented are usually answered with: “We are studying them.”

Tunisia’s social pressures, added to domestic and regional security threats, have constituted extraor­dinary challenges since 2011. Even before that, Tunisia was plagued by an inertia problem. Refusal to introduce necessary reforms led to economic stagnation and eventu­ally to social implosion.

Contrast Tunisia with countries that have truly shown foreign investors that the welcome mat is out and that they are “business friendly”. The United Arab Emir­ates, Singapore, Malaysia, Poland, the Czech Republic and Turkey are a few of the countries that have cut the red tape required to start a business. All have made the process of converting profits into exportable currency and changing banking regulations to provide the opportunity for businesses to take advantage of e-commerce. And all accomplished these goals in a few years.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Tunis used to boast about the op­portunities available to tech busi­nesses in Tunisia taking advantage of the country’s multilingual and relatively well-educated popula­tion. Many in the tech industry did start using Tunisia but not for development. Rather, Tunisia became the low-cost, low-value as­sembler for European companies. There was little “value added”, although value-added jobs were what the country needed to pro­vide for the tens of thousands of unemployed college graduates.

“The problem for a Tunisian who has the tech knowledge, who per­haps studied abroad and returns to Tunisia to be a contributor is they find that funding sources for tech start-ups are nearly non-existent,” notes Ahmed Fessi, a Tunisian executive who is based in France but frequently returns to Tunisia and to Algeria for projects.

Unless someone has family money, there are essentially no funding sources for the creation of new products in Tunisia.

“Tunisian banks and venture capitalists still do not understand the tech world. Here in Tunisia, banks do not understand funding a concept. Give them a box with content, note what it is on the invoice and who it is being shipped to and what the person will pay… this they understand how to fund,” Fessi says.

One sector of Tunisia’s economy that has done well for certain businesses is imports and exports. Trade, however, has always been overdependent on Europe. As the economy in Europe slumped, so did Tunisia’s.

The real reason some of the import/export businesses flour­ished before 2011 was cronyism that allowed for exclusive licences for imports and distribution-retail of goods in the domestic markets, as noted in 2014 by a World Bank study.

Politically sanctioned crony­ism encouraged the emergence of a more nefarious phenomenon: the informal economy, which constitutes more than 50% of all economic activity in the country. Cross-border trafficking in all kinds of goods deprives the state of tax revenues and finances illicit activi­ties. It threatens the formal econo­my and discourages international businesses. For years, Tunisian authorities promised to make nec­essary changes for the economy to grow. Today, the country faces ad­ditional challenges that are making the economic recovery a struggle. But the basics the decision-makers need to tackle are still there.

Tunisia’s political leaders must recognise that decisiveness, rather than continued delays of needed reform, are a benefit of democracy. What the people want more than anything from its new democracy is the economic opportunities that can ensue when both foreign and domestic business thrive.

Jerry Sorkin
Tunis, Tunisia

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Bravo Maistro Barenboim!
We look for many more encores to come!

Image and video hosting by TinyPic         Conductor Daniel Barenboim. Photo credit: dw.com

Bravo Maistro Barenboim!

It has been announced that the famed pianist and conductor, Daniel Barenboim, will be bringing the Berlin State Orchestra to Iran.

Bringing a symphony orchestra on a cultural visit to Iran, a country that since their 1979 revolution prohibited the public performance of Western orchestral music until only recently, is a welcome sign of change and the type of cultural exchange that should be encouraged! The fact that the Iranian government has allowed such music to again be performed and has also welcomed Conductor Daniel Barenboim’s offer to perform in Iran should only result in applause.

Wherever one may stand on the recent “5 plus 1” negotiations and the recent diplomatic talks after more than three decades of near silence between Iran and the West; a growing number of American tourists visiting Iran, as well as other types of academic and cultural exchanges taking place between Iran and the United States and other Western countries…all such forms of exchange should be encouraged. After decades of walls of silence, augmented with threats and intimidation, it is only through such Citizen Diplomacy that real progress can take place and hopefully, a change of behavior by and between Iran, the United States and the West.

I had the honor of meeting with Daniel Barenboim in Philadelphia to discuss music as a bridge between opposing sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and applaud his attempts to embark on similar efforts with Iran.

Bravo Maistro Barenboim! We look for many more encores to come!

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Jerry Sorkin
Tunis, Tunisia

Follow me on Twitter   @JerrySorkin



Diplomacy helped bring about an historic agreement between Iran, the United States and the additional four countries involved…

While not everyone can agree that the agreement reached in Vienna is foolproof and understandably, concerns remain, the fact that after more than three decades there were fruitful talks is in itself, a big step forward. Hopefully, further progress and warming of relations can continue.
We invite you to join us as we continue the Citizens Diplomacy that we have been conducting in Iran since 2009.
Join us in Iran!!!
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Jerry Sorkin
Founder and President

Four years on, tourism would be the real spring for Tunisia

A recent photograph in Tunisia’s French daily, La Presse, looked all too familiar. The new tourism minister, Salma Elloumi Rekik, sat next to the head of the Tunisia Hotel Federation, just as every new tourism minister has done after taking charge. This has been, on average, once a year. That’s how often tourism ministers have changed since the January 2011 revolution. The one constant is that none of them has had a background in tourism, so they rarely do more than make promises.

But tourism should be the engine of Tunisia’s economic recovery. The country has a long history of being a favoured southern Mediterranean destination. Five years ago, it attracted 6.7 million visitors.

Tourism accounts for roughly 7 per cent of gross national product and directly or indirectly employs nearly 500,000 Tunisians. Though the industry is heavily dependent on the “sun and sea” model, Tunisia is well positioned to promote its other attributes: its wealth of Roman sites, the southern desert and the beautiful mountains in the north.

Unlike the lofty plans to attract foreign investment in the renewable energy, high-tech agriculture and textile manufacturing sectors, tourism is a viable industry with the potential for quick growth. Tourism infrastructure and personnel already exist. Although everything is woefully out of date, quick fixes are possible, many of them at minimal cost. These changes could go a long way towards overcoming the considerable loss of visitors as a result of the chaos after the revolution.

The strongest markets historically – France, Italy, Spain and Germany – have declined, their tourists migrating to alternative Mediterranean destinations. More than 25 per cent of Tunisia’s hotels are either barely making it financially or hold the sort of non-performing loans that have greatly affected the Tunisian economy. Visitors from Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and other former eastern bloc countries still come but they spend less than the French and Germans and much of their money goes directly to European tour operators, who then dictate what they will pay for the rooms.

Some proposals being discussed to turn around the sector include an alternative tourism model of boutique hotels; B&-type properties and reaching out to more lucrative markets such as Japan, China and the United States.

These ideas are not as daring as they might sound. Before the revolution, Japan was already a lucrative market that sent small groups of tourists to Tunisia during its low and mid seasons. The groups travelled around the country, as opposed to staying at coastal sun-and-sea hotels, which hit peak occupancy between May and September. Several tour operators are actively exploring these possibilities. Atlantis Voyages, one of the country’s largest, has been busily showing the Japanese that Tunisia is safe again by means of an all-expenses-paid tour for top Japanese travel agents.

The agents had the chance to meet the minister of tourism, but this was essentially one private company’s attempt to sell Tunisia without government support.

Everyone agrees that the government must do more to raise the country’s overall profile. Tunisia has basked in the world’s approval for having taken the first steps in the transition to democracy, but potential tourists need more incentive than that if they are to come.

Tourism will move forward by returning to some aspects of the past. Before the revolution, for instance, visitors from neighbouring countries would note how clean Tunisia was. But all that went downhill when confusion reigned after the uprising. Now it’s time for rules to be enforced once again – not least the no-smoking signs at airports and in public spaces.

Perhaps the greatest growth spurt would come from finally implementing an open skies policy. Tunisia’s national airline and its union have long prevented this but neighbouring countries, including Morocco, Malta, Greece and Turkey, went through the same domestic battle about the wisdom of subjecting a weak national carrier to international competition in the interests of bringing in more tourists.

It is now up to Tunisia’s elected government to lead the charge that will revitalise tourism as a step towards fixing the ailing economy.

Jerry Sorkin is a tourism expert, emeritus president of the American Tunisian Association and lives part of the year in Tunis

On Twitter: @tunis_usa

Link of the article: http://www.thenational.ae/opinion/comment/four-years-on-tourism-would-be-the-real-spring-for-tunisia

Tunisia’s election was not about religion…except for those who wanted to make religion an issue…

Tunisians voted for what mattered to them!

With all the Social Media and frequency of Blogs  I have sent out over the years, my most recent October 27th Blog about Tunisia’s election results received nearly as much attention as any I have ever done. The response to the Blog was overwhelmingly positive and appreciative of the analyses of the elections.

However, there were a few queries as to why I chose to use a photo of a Tunisian woman who clearly is observant by the fact that she was wearing a tight head scarf. The queries, some of which were explicit,  asked why I showed a religious woman who probably, by her way of dress, is presumed to be a supporter of Tunisia’s Ennahda party, the Islamic party.

2014 10 26 09 41 15 Election Day Oct 26th 2014

Such queries show the inherent bias that many of us have, not only relating to Tunisia, but our response to seeing someone whose way of dress displays their religiosity…in this case, Islam.

A bit of full disclosure…the woman in the photo, Wasilla, is a friend. I happened to see her Sunday morning after she just returned from voting in Tunisia’s elections and she proudly held up her ink stained finger to show she voted. So, my response to taking her photo was simply a response to being there at this moment, of which she was so proud…proud to say that as a Tunisian, she had the opportunity to vote in a free election!  But, the photo and the fact that Wasilla is a “covered woman” left many to read in what they wanted.

As for myself, I like to think I am “color blind”. Having lived in Tunisia for years and having traveled widely over these last thirty some odd years, I have developed close friendships throughout the world, crossing religions, cultures, ethnic groups and languages. I try as much as possible to see people for who they are and not pre-judge them by their religion, language or ethnic background. I have tried to instill this same belief to my son, as well and believe that I have succeeded, seeing that he has friends who cross the specturm of color and ethnic lines. However, I assume it is only natural that as hard as we try, we all carry some inner biases.

The interesting backdrop to the photo of Wasilla, unintended at the time I took the photo and the election results in Tunisia, is that after taking the photos, Wasilla told me she did NOT vote for Ennahda, the Islamic party. Rather, she proudly stated that she voted for Beji Caid Essebsi’s party, Nida Tounes, an avowedly secular party that is an umbrella party representing many of Tunisia’s secular democratic centrists parties. Nida Tounes was the decidedly clear, victor in Tunisia’s elections.

When I asked Wasilla what prompted her to vote for Nida Tounes, she explained that she is observant and lives her life by her religious convictions. But during the years of Ennahda’s political rule, she has seen Tunisia’s economy crumble, the country’s image decline in the eyes of the world and frankly, has not seen benefits for Tunisia.

Wasilla comes from a small town near Ain Draham in the northwest mountains of Tunisia, near the Algerian border. Little has changed in this region over the years, including the fact that governments, past and including Ennahda’s years in power, continue to neglect the region. While Wasilla has managed on her own gumption over the years to come to Tunis, work hard, attend school and earn a Master’s Degree in financial management, she is one of the fortunate ones. She now works as the controller for an NGO in one of Tunisia’s economically challenged areas, an NGO that has projects in more than a dozen areas of Tunisia. Working for the NGO, TAAMS, ( taamstn.org), Wasilla has also had the benefit of advanced training, having been sent to both Amman and Beirut in the past year for continuing education.

So, while Wasilla has worked hard and represents those Tunisians who are determined to do their best and not sit back and wait for a government or a political party to give them something, she notes that “Islam” has nothing to do with how she view politics. How she chooses to practice her religion is a private matter.

Returning to her village regularly, Wasilla is constantly reminded that even during the recent years of Ennahda, the promises have been empty. When she visits her family and the rains come to the region or as one of Tunisia’s few areas where snow falls, seeing the residents disabled and roads turned into mud, clearly Ennahda did not bring promised improvement to the area.

So in the end, Wasilla not only voted for change, but encouraged her family and friends to do the same. Religion was never part of what brought the spontaneity of Tunisia’s Revolution in January 2011. The only reason religion became a political issue is that there are people who wanted to make it an issue.

For Westerners and Tunisians alike, one can look at Tunisia’s elections this past Sunday as yet one more positive step in Tunisia’s singular identity. A country and people that by and large, is truly nationalistic, putting their “Tunisianness” first…over religion, over being Arab and voting for what they feel is best for Tunisia.
Tunisian and American flags together

For the many Wasillas who remain observant and whose dress may prompt stereotypes and generalizations, it was their reason for choosing who they voted for that represents Tunisia’s success in putting democratization in practice. All this progress in democratization in less than four years since the country’s newfound independence. And for those among us who might see people dressed in a way that suggests their religious inclination, Tunisians clearly showed the world that having a political party trying to dictate through religion is not what they favor.

It is with great pride that I write from Tunisia and share the excitement and sense of accomplishment that many Tunisians are now feeling about their country.

Signature Jerry Sorkin formal
Jerry Sorkin

Jerry in sidi bou Said July 2014 IMG 4932


     Jerry Sorkin has been involved in marketing and business development for decades, in Tunisia, as well as other MENA region countries, with an emphasis on cultural tourism, residing most of the year in Tunisia. He is Founder and President of TunisUSA and Iconic Journeys Worldwide.
www.TunisUSA.com  www.IconicJourneysWorldwide.com

     He was among the authors of the 2012 World Bank study on restructuring Tunisia’s tourism economy and serves as the Tourism Consultant on a European Union project in Tunisia on Cultural Tourism. He also has been awarded “Top Specialist” for Tunisia by Conde Nast Traveler magazine for five years in a row and was the initiator and organizer behind-the- scenes of the magazine’s January 2014 article “Tunisia’s Time”.https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B-nohG5K079xTXJRWmRRbXE2VHc/edit.

      Jerry Sorkin is an Emeritus President of the Washington, DC based American Tunisian Association, though his opinions in this writing are those of his own.

La Tunisie…Ne rates pas l’opportunité!!!

Je viens de rentrer d’un séjour de 10 nuits en Iran. Depuis 2009, TunisUSA conduit des programmes de tourisme culturel qui ramène des américains en Iran. Le développement du tourisme culturel en Iran fait face à de nombreux obstacles de taille : la réputation négative que l’Iran auprès de la plupart des américains ; le fait que les Etats Unis et l’Iran n’entretiennent pas de relations diplomatiques et donc, l’inexistence d’ambassades dans chaque pays ; les sanctions économiques imposés par les USA à l’encontre de l’Iran interdisent les transferts monétaires, y compris les simples retirements d’argent ou l’utilisation des cartes de crédit américaines. De surcroît, le ministère de tourisme iranien fait peu d’efforts pour promouvoir le tourisme, même pas celui ciblant le marché européen qui émet le plus de touristes vers la République Islamique.

Pourtant, en dépit de toutes ces restrictions, les nombre des américains qui voyagent vers l’Iran ne cesse d’accroître. Ils y vont pour explorer les richesses historiques et culturels de ce pays.

Tout au long de mon séjour en Iran, j’ai pas pu m’empêcher de comparer la croissance du nombre des touristes émanant du marché américain en Iran avec celui de la Tunisie, un pays tout aussi riche en culture et en histoire, et qui de plus entretient des relations plus que cordiales avec les Etats Unis.

TunisUSA a déjà reçu des réservations pour nos tours en Iran en octobre en décembre 2014 et en avril 2015. Le Metropolitan Museum of Art à New York a un voyage programmé en novembre 2014 à un prix de $10.000 US à base d’occupation double, plus $1.075 en supplément single. Le billet d’avion et les frais de visa ne sont pas pris en charge ! L’université de Stanford en Californie a organisé un voyage, guichets fermés, pour ses anciens étudiants en mars 2013. Le prix ? $8.400 par personne en occupation double, avec 1.370$ pour le supplément single. Le billet et le visa n’étaient également pas pris en charge !

Quels renseignements peut-on tirer alors concernant les opportunités pour la Tunisie vis-à-vis le marché américain ? La réponse est quelque chose que nous à TunisUSA avions connu depuis un certain temps. Si la Tunisie pourrait consacrer une partie de leur budget marketing ET reconnaîtrait l’opportunité d’atteindre le marché des voyageurs les plus riches et sophistiqués dans le monde, la Tunisie pourrait bénéficier d’une croissance comme celle de l’Iran, une croissance que, rappelons-le, vient malgré les obstacles susmentionnés. Et que dire de cette excuse usée que les responsables du tourisme en Tunisie ont utilisé pendant de nombreuses années, «pas de vol direct»? Les responsables du tourisme tunisien feraient bien de noter que malgré tout l’argent que les américains dépensent déjà pour aller en Iran comme on l’a mentionné,  il n’existe pas de vol direct entre les états unis et l’Iran.

Après maints efforts et du lobbying intense, « l’AVERTISSEMENT » exigé par les USA sur la destination Tunisie a été enlevé ! Ceci est une opportunité en or pour le pays pour aller de l’avant et cibler le marché américain. TunisUSA a été la seule entreprise américaine qui a n’a pas cessé d’investir en et de promouvoir la Tunisie aux Etats-Unis depuis la Révolution. Bien que, en tant que fondateur et président de TunisUSA, j’ai personnellement une passion pour la Tunisie, j’ai choisi de poursuivre nos efforts de promouvoir la Tunisie car il y a un ROI … retour sur investissement!


Jerry Sorkin est impliqué pleinement dans le marketing et développement des affaires depuis des décennies, en Tunisie, ainsi que d’autres pays de la région MENA, en mettant l’accent sur le tourisme culturel. Résidant la plupart de l’année en Tunisie, il est le fondateur et président deTunisUSA et Iconic Journeys Worldwide.

www.TunisUSA.com  www.IconicJourneysWorldwide.com

Il était parmi les auteurs de l’étude de la Banque Mondiale sur la restructuration de l’économie touristique de la Tunisie 2012 et sert comme consultant en tourisme sur un projet de l’Union Européenne en Tunisie sur le tourisme culturel.
Il est aussi un Emeritus President de l’American Tunisian Associaton (ATA) (www.americantunisianassociation.com). Les opinions exprimées dans cet article sont les siennes et ne sont pas censés représenter l’ATA.

Tunisia can make it !

Protestors in Tunisia, January 2011 (Reuters)
Protestors in Tunisia, January 2011 (Reuters)

Far too often journalists have parachuted into Tunisia after an incident and reported that the country was in “turmoil”, or worse! For those of us who have been in Tunisia since before and after the Revolution, they would know that this is hardly a reflection of daily life here. Yes, there has been a lot of political wrangling, disagreements and certainly, considerable political incompetence. The economy has shown little to no signs of improvement and the ruling party since the October 2011 elections has barely an accomplishment to show. They are also more than a year overdue in their initial charge of writing the Constitution.

Despite these political hills and valleys,  two well publicized incidents of political assassinations and frequent labor demonstrations, daily life continues with relative normality for the majority of Tunisians; theaters and cafes are open, concerts take place, schools are open, shopping malls are packed and tourists continue to come. Parachuting journalists have often left the impression in the media that Tunisia is another Egypt or worse, Syria, Libya or Iraq. As anyone who truly knows Tunisia, this is far from the reality on the ground and a sad commentary on media that looks for the quick story, rather than the digging into the reality.

The last several weeks have seen Tunisian diplomacy that can perhaps set a barometer for the United States’s Congress’s Republicans and Democrats. Tunisian political adversaries have made concessions, often times politically painful ones. The latest agreement results in choosing a new Prime Minister who is more of a technocrat than a politician and who has been given the task of steering the country through the next stage, leading to the completion of the long overdue Constitution and calling for new elections. While the results of this next stage are too soon to be judged and the real test of seeing that the political party that offered to step down does as it promises, the process has been free of violence and has not brought interruption to the daily lives of Tunisians.

For a country that is a nascent democracy, barely three years old and never having had the history of a free and transparent political life, this relatively peaceful process is the real story underway in Tunisia. It is these hopeful signs that allow all of us here in Tunisia, Tunisian born and otherwise, to feel that if any Arab country can truly achieve democracy, it is Tunisia that signals the best hope!

Jerry Sorkin
Founder and President

PS: Carlota Gall of the New York Time’s captured the Tunisian scene well in this recent article:  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/17/world/africa/a-political-deal-in-a-deeply-divided-tunisia-as-islamists-agree-to-yield-power.html?emc=edit_tnt_20131216&tntemail0=y&_r=0


How to Maximize Your Frequent Flyer Miles?

If you are like lot of travelers, you have frequent flyer miles you have been trying to use and never seem to get the dates you want, or, never get the destinations you want.

I had the opportunity to speak with Gary Leff, the Guru of frequent flyer miles and one who has found the inner secrets of maximizing your miles. Gary not only can help you, but he also generously shares his methods on his blog, www.viewfromthewing.com  and also on his website, http://bookyouraward.com/

I had the pleasure of listening to Gary’s talk at Conde Nast Traveler magazine’s January 2013 Summit for the magazine’s “Top Travel Specialists”.

Gary Leff speaking at the Conde Nast Traveler "Top Specialists" Summit.

Gary was good enough to take some time to speak to us and we are happy to share this brief video with you!  Click below to hear Gary…

We know Gary has been able to help many people. Hopefully, he can turn your miles into more than you might imagine!

Happy Travels!

Jerry Sorkin, Founder of TunisUSA and Iconic Journeys Worldwide

Musical Dialogues

While the political problems in the Middle East may at times seem like they are intractable and dialogue or not to dialogue at the highest governmental levels become political bargaining chips in their own right, there are people who find common ground to overcome their differences. Bringing together musicians who can recognize the talents of one another and the respect for one another’s musicianship has often brought together people who would otherwise, unlikely cross paths. But they find their musical talents become a bridge that greatly outweighs political adversity.

Daniel Barenboim’s East-West Divan Orchestra has been bringing together young Arab and Israeli musicians who perform regularly around the world and have formed close friendships among one another, as well as further success as musicians.

Intercultural Journeys, a Philadelphia based arts group was also founded around the premise of bringing together world-class musicians to not only perform together, but in creating performances that require to collaboration in the music itself, by incorporating instruments that are not often used together, or in blending musical techniques, rhythms or melodies that blend influences of the backgrounds of the diverse musicians.

Travel can do the same. Think of how your travel experiences can help you find the opportunity to reach new understandings. It can be one of the greatest rewards in travel and greatly transcends the importance of travel in changing hearts and minds.