One axis of economic development in the Maghreb is the fast growing tourism sector, which Morocco and Tunisia have made a top priority. Algeria, which can afford to fall back on its oil and gas industry, is looking to develop its tourism sector, although the country’s perpetual security problems will make it more of an “adventure” destination than a getaway. Since 2006, Algeria has pushed through legislative reforms to facilitate foreign and local investment in the tourism sector and reports indicate that the country is particularly interested in developing cultural tourism.
Tourism in the Maghreb, while briefly faltering after September 11, 2001, recovered and then rapidly advanced to record levels in Tunisia and Morocco. But many analysts worry that a decline in tourist arrivals to the region is imminent. Tourism contributes nearly $3 billion a year to Morocco’s economy and the Tourism Ministry is implementing a plan, ‘Morocco 2010’, to increase the number of tourist arrivals to 10 million by 2010. Growth levels have been encouraging, but there was some stagnation in the crucial summer period of 2008. According to the Tourism Ministry’s Observatory of Tourism Statistics, tourism receipts had not evolved in the period of January – August 2008 ($4.76 billion) compared to the same period of 2007 ($4.8 billion). However, the number of tourist arrivals to the kingdom was up 2% for the same period. A period of stagnation or even decline in tourist arrivals to the kingdom could easily come about in 2009, as Europeans cut back on spending in response to the financial crisis and Morocco may be forced to revisit or delay some of the objectives of its 2010 plan.
Tunisia’s tourism action plan looks further ahead to 2016 and aims to improve the marketing of the country to European markets. A new round of contracts with leading tour operators is being counted on to reverse a regression in the flow of tourists to the country, as are improvements in hotel capacity. Mega-projects such as Tunis Sports City and Mediterranean Gate City, scheduled to reach completion in the coming years, will also boost arrivals. Tunisia is also looking to expand interregional tourism, and held Tunisian tourism week in the Libyan capital Tripoli in January of 2008.
Economic liberalization in Morocco and Tunisia is ushering in an era of unprecedented closeness between these countries and their Western European neighbors to the north. Closer relations mean a boost to sectors like tourism, which has been increasingly dynamic over the past several years. The global economic downturn could expose the flipside of this closeness if the Maghreb’s economic dependence on Europe is not met with the support that was promised when Western markets seemed invincible.