In the aftermath of the Tunisian revolution two years ago there was hope that the end of the Ben Ali regime might provide an opportunity for a makeover of the country’s tourism industry. It was time, some said, for Tunisia to move away from its reliance on the ‘cheap-and-cheerful’ package holiday — a model that dated back to the 1970s, when visitors were cantoned away at beach resorts and had little interaction with locals. The medium-term goal, it was argued, should be to attract more higher-spending visitors to a wider range of holidays and activities, from trips to view desert wildlife to business conferences.
As in other areas of the economy a combination of domestic and international factors is slowing progress. World Bank economists advising the country’s transitional government discovered that banks had lent heavily to financial investors in beach-side hotels who often had little vocation or incentive to grow their businesses along competitive lines. The easy credits often reflected borrowers’ links to Ben Ali’s ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), rather than any entrepreneurial skill. Banks knew the courts would not enforce repayment, and today about 33 percent of Tunisian banks’ non-performing loans are related to these beach-side hotels. The phenomenon has received scant coverage in local media, and hotel owners are dragging their feet on a proposal that would see their debts rescheduled and taken off the banks’ books by being transferred to an asset management vehicle. The result: along the coast from Tabarka in the north to Djerba in the south, by way of Hammamet, Sousse, Monastir and Mahdia, price-cutting by those who benefited from the easy loans intensified amid the drastic falls in visitor numbers following the revolution. Tunisia’s approximately 850 hotels include about 50 that are not commercially viable, and other hotel owners, struggling to pay back normal loans, cannot compete on pricing. Their workers barely get by on low wages.
The Islamist party Nahda had big aspirations for tourism ahead of the October 2011 election. One speaker at its campaign launch was frank, if hardly diplomatic, when he declared: “We are tired of welcoming the poor of Europe!” Experts rattled off ways to woo new kinds of visitors: cultural, desert, sports, Islamic, ecological and medical tourism. Niche tourism for the wealthy, even revolutionary tourism where groups of camera-wearing tourists were already being shepherded past the once-feared Interior Ministry building in Tunis was proposed. Later, savoring its landslide election victory and heading a three-party coalition government, Nahda attempted to reassure a jumpy French media that it would ban neither beer nor bikinis on the beach.
Fast-forward to early 2013 and despite the continuing economic crisis in Europe, visitor numbers, at more than 5.5 million, are recovering. But they are still 14 percent below the levels of 2010, the last year of the Ben Ali regime. Elyes Fakhfakh, a member of the non-religious Ettakatol party and a former manager with French oil company Total, was tourism minister through last year before being appointed finance minister in December as well. His scenario is for steady growth to take visitor numbers to 10 million by 2016, as Tunisia, for the time being, falls back on its existing hotel infrastructure at the classic coastal resorts.
French tourists — still by far the most important national contingent — are nevertheless 28 percent down, compared to falls of 10 percent for German and 6 percent for British visitors. Is the French media’s extensive coverage of Tunisia’s conservative Salafist Islamists a factor in the slow return of the French? Tunisians on Facebook certainly think so. After ‘France 2’ television broadcast on January 17 a documentary entitled “Tunisia under the Salafist Menace”, more than 1,300 Tunisian Facebook users leapt to the defense of their tourism industry, accusing the film-makers of scare-mongering and of sabotaging the 2013 season.
With French planes flying over neighboring Algeria to reach Mali, and Algerian troops’ botched attempt to rescue hostages from Islamist militants at Algeria’s In Amens gas plant, the French-made documentary had touched a nationalist nerve.
Unfortunately events in Mali and Algeria may put a damper on tourism in Tunisia, especially on the “desert tourism” that looked to generate much-needed income in the south. And as for Tunisia’s woefully under-exploited Roman archaeological sites, it seems the dead hand of the old regime needs to be further loosened so that a little fresh air and commercial know-how is let in to generate jobs.
Eileen Byrne reports from Tunis for the London-based Guardian and The Sunday Times