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 Although everything is woefully out of date, quick fixes are possible, many of them at minimal cost.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

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