Tourists Return to Tunisia, but Slowly

Simon Marsov, a 25-year-old management consultant from Moscow, flew to the resort town of Sousse, Tunisia, by the Mediterranean last summer because he wanted to experience a foreign place on the cheap.

Lalioui Faouzi, a 26-year-old dentist from Algiers, said he made the 11-hour drive in late summer to Hammamet, another resort on Tunisia’s east coast, because the hotels were cheaper than those in Algeria, the beaches were livelier and he didn’t need a visa.

Visitors from Algeria and Russia arrived in record numbers in 2016 and helped save Tunisia’s seaside hotels from a second abysmal summer.

Western Europeans continued to largely shun the small North African country in the wake of two massacres of tourists in 2015. But now there are signs that Tunisia’s Continental visitors are returning, giving rise to hopes that the hobbled tourism industry might get back on its feet this year.

The major package-tour operators Thomas Cook and TUI Group say that they are seeing growing bookings from France and Germany, traditionally Tunisia’s biggest sources of European visitors. Some hotels, like the Golden Tulip Carthage, say they are as busy as they were before the 2011 revolution in Tunisia, which fueled the so-called Arab Spring in the region. And tourism officials, noting tight security and no terrorist attacks on tourists in the past two years, note that the number of foreign arrivals has jumped by more than a third in the first four months of this year.

Still, the overall number of foreign visitors to this crossroads of Arab, African and European cultures, and home to a stunning collection of Roman ruins, remains well below that of the peak years before the revolution: 4.5 million last year, compared with 6.9 million in 2010.

Tourism was picking up in 2013 and 2014, but the cruises stopped coming when their passengers were among the 21 fatally gunned down by extremists at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis in March 2015.

Three months later, 38 sunbathers and hotel guests — 30 of them British — were shot dead in a rampage by a lone assailant at a beachfront resort near Sousse.

Britain imposed a countrywide travel ban, which is still in effect, and a number of nations including the United States warned against travel to certain parts of Tunisia, like the southeast region bordering Libya.

“That was a knockout,” said Zouhair Mbarek, whose Batouta Voyages & Events company used to organize cultural tours for Western and Japanese tourists.

The scent of sunblock on sunburned Western tourists vanished from the pool decks and seaside promenades that summer.

While other operators folded, Mr. Mbarek switched to local and corporate clients and started new companies in business coaching and video. He said his travel business had been in a slump until the end of last summer, when the Chinese started coming.

In his office in Tunis in September, he joked about popping champagne when a Hong Kong travel agent committed to sending seven culture-tour groups in the coming months. Since then, he has had groups of 20 to 30 Chinese tourists arriving each week, trooping to cities like Douz, on the edge of the Sahara in the southwest, and Kairouan, home to one of Islam’s holiest mosques, in the north-central region.

Now his tourism trade is about half of what it was before the revolution. But like many others in the industry, he knows that the country will be dogged not only by its own political and economic troubles and the continuing Mideast turmoil, but also by the chaos and violence in neighboring Libya, where the Islamic State is fighting to secure strongholds.

“Tourism will not recover very soon in Tunisia until Libya returns to calm,” Mr. Mbarek said.

In the meantime, the industry has been trying to fix what hotel owners, tour operators and former and current tourism officials admit was a broken model: marketing Tunisia for decades almost exclusively as a cheap, sea-and-sun, package-tour destination. They neglected the country’s cultural sites, missed out on the book-it-yourself digital revolution and largely ignored other sources like Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East. After a decade, they are still debating whether to open Tunis to low-cost carriers like Ryanair.

The first priority was security. Now black-uniformed police officers with assault rifles are stationed under big umbrellas at resort roundabouts and in armored trucks on the French-colonial boulevards of the capital.

Before 2015, hotels in Tunisia had hardly any security. Now they check the trunks and undercarriages of vehicles pulling up to the gates, and the higher-end hotels have metal detectors.

The police also monitor the routes of tourists traveling to historic sites like the Roman ruins of the ancient mountaintop city of Dougga. There, on an early afternoon, the only sounds amid the second- and third-century temples and stone streets rutted by chariot wheels were bleating sheep and the wind blowing through olive trees — and my tour guide’s ringing cellphone as the police called to check on us.

“It’s terrible for me when it’s quiet,” another guide, Mona Begaoui, said amid remnants from the golden age of Roman Africa, including a largely intact but empty amphitheater. “If it’s one group I’m happy; sometimes it’s nothing.”

Tourism officials have put more emphasis on promoting sites like Dougga and the well-preserved amphitheater of El Jem, one of largest in the Roman Empire and modeled on the Coliseum in Rome. They are seeking to draw more international visitors to events like an annual music festival in Carthage and a new, electronic music rave in the Sahara near Tozeur, where a “Star Wars” movie was filmed.

The officials created new websites and platforms on Twitter and Instagram and marketed to specific countries like Algeria and Russia, as well as Belgium, which relaxed its travel ban on Tunisia this spring.

The efforts to lure Russians were especially fruitful, with more than a tenfold increase in tourists last year, to 623,000.

Last spring, Abdellatif Hamam, then the head of Tunisia’s National Tourism Office, flew 440 Russian travel agents to Tunisia to pamper them at Djerba island hotels, show them the new armed patrols and persuade them to start organizing tours.

He was aided by the fact that in late 2015 Russia essentially shut off travel to two of its top tourism destinations — Egypt and Turkey — creating a big opening for Tunisia. Russia still bans flights to Egypt after the explosion of a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula in October 2015. For much of last year, Russia banned charter flights to Turkey after a Turkish fighter jet in November 2015 shot down a Russian military plane near the Syrian border.

The lifting of that ban late last summer is likely to mean fewer Russians for Tunisia and more for Turkey, which is even cheaper, said Mr. Marsov, the Russian tourist. He vacationed in Turkey a few years ago, but was so impressed with Tunisia last summer, he said, that he might come back.

Mr. Marsov added that he knew the rap on his countrymen: that they book cheap, all-inclusive tours and stay glued to the hotel “like a jellyfish on the beach.”

He, too, was on a package trip — nine days for $500 — at a hotel in Sousse with stained carpets in the hallways and a large, airy atrium with clusters of Russians keeping the bar waiters busy. But he said he also wanted to discover “a very different country, a bit wild but attractive,” so he added a desert safari and a day trip to the ruins of ancient Carthage.

He had no qualms about safety. He once considered taking job in Burkina Faso in West Africa, which has its own troubles with terror groups. In comparison, he said, “Tunisia is like Switzerland.”

Not quite. The trains I rode were late and had broken seats. Streets in the capital and even the resorts were often strewed with trash. And while Tunisia’s revolution was seen as a success that put the country on a path to democracy, the economy is weak, unemployment is high and militant threats persist around the country, including at its borders with Algeria and Libya.

The troubles, for some, have brought opportunities.

At the Golden Tulip Carthage, bookings started picking up last summer, in part because the general manager, Ghassan Jana, pursued more new markets, hosting travel agents from Iraq and his native Jordan, for example. But mostly, he said, it was because “we are selling security and not rooms.”

The hotel, popular with international businesspeople, European diplomats and Mideast dignitaries, commands a mountainside overlooking a bay, and the added security cameras and private guards, as well as the armed police on the roads leading there, make guests feel safe, Mr. Jana said.

Reservations kept improving through last fall and now are back to pre-revolution levels, with 85 percent to 90 percent of the hotel full during the week, he said.

Alexandra Azarova said she wasn’t so confident. She gives private tours to small groups of Russians who tend to be well off and well educated and keen to visit desert and archaeological sites. In late April and early May, she had excursions booked for two weeks straight. But it’s still early in the season, and she said she wasn’t seeing many tour groups or buses at the museums and ruins. There were four busloads of tourists at the huge amphitheater in El Jem on a recent day, from China, Germany, Poland and Russia, she said.

“They are coming; not in great quantities, but they are coming,” Ms. Azarova said. “But it’s too early to celebrate the numbers.”

The New York Times

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