Tunisia looks to tourism to heal economy hit by Arab Spring

Tourists take pictures as they tour the medina, the old city of Tunis. Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring, wants to revive its battered tourism industry more than two years after the revolution. Zoubeir Souissi / Reuters

But the real question is Can Tunisia build an economy with innovation and free from coruption.

Tunisia  wants to revive its battered tourism industry more than two years after the uprising and in the face of the euro-zone crisis that has affected the incomes of many Europeans.

While nearly 6 million visitors came to the country last year, up from 4.5 million a year earlier, the number was still 60 per cent less than in 2010, Khaled Fourati, the chief executive of the Continental Hotel in the capital city of Tunis and vice president of Groupe Interprofessionnel du Tourisme, said last month.

After last year’s start of a fragile tourism recovery in the North African country, hotel bookings nosedived again after the assassination of the opposition leader Chokri Belaid on February 6.

“That event has led to a new round of political challenges, and thus the [general economic] recovery will depend heavily on how quickly the government can get back to work,” said Ann Wyman, a senior officer at AfricInvest, a Tunis-based pan-African private equity fund.

Before the killing, “growth predictions for 2013 centred around 3 per cent, with a recovery expected in many sectors”, she said.

Libyans represented two thirds of visitors last year, with Tunisia also depending heavily on guests from France, Germany, England, Spain and Italy.

Package holidays booked from France  by one major tour operator fell by 90 per cent in the week following the killing of Belaid, said Mehdi Allani, who runs Le Sultan, a hotel in Hammamet, 60 kilometres south of Tunis on the Mediterranean.

“These clients are not waiting for change but choosing other destinations,” Mr Allani said.

Tunisia is bidding to transform its tourism industry from being a winter sun destination to attracting more culture seekers, business travellers and those coming for medical treatment as it aims to attract 10 million tourists by 2016. The Tunisian ministry of tourism is organising a national conference on March 28 and has put together a set of targets for the next few years.

Negotiations with the IMF for US$1.78 billion (Dh6.53bn) in funding, which is at an advanced stage, could boost confidence, Ms Wyman said.

“Almost 80 per cent of the tourists come for the sea and the beach in Tunisia, and we are trying to change this for six, seven years, since before the revolution,” says Mr Fourati, whose family has been in the hotel business since 1948 and manages four other hotels along with the Continental across Tunisia.

Despite waning demand, many hotels have resisted cutting their prices because of the rising cost of living.

“Inflation is going up, wages are going up, and we can’t afford to cut prices,” Mr Fourati said.

Thomas Cook, the travel agency, reported its west European business was severely affected by poor performance of the French market because of “lower demand for holidays to the important French-speaking North African destinations”.

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