Tourists slowly return to Tunisia

The sea breeze on the promenades of the Mediterranean resort of Sousse in Tunisia last summer was filled with the beat of Algerian pop music, not the scent of sunblock on Western Europeans.

And hotel lobby bars were filled with Russians rather than British, French and German tourists, wearing the color-coded wrist bands of package tours — green for booze included.

Visitors from Algeria and Russia helped save Tunisia’s seaside hotels from a second-straight abysmal summer, as Western Europeans largely shunned the country in the wake of two separate tourist massacres in 2015.

But now there are signs that more of this small, North African country’s neighbors are slowly returning, fueling hopes that the hobbled tourism sector may get back on its feet this year.

The major package-tour operators Thomas Cook and TUI Group say they are seeing growing bookings from Germany and France, 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 that fueled the Arab uprising in the region.

Tourism officials, noting tight security and no terrorist attacks on tourists the past two years, boast 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 off the peak years before the revolution — 4.5 million last year compared with 6.9 million in 2010.

Tourism was picking up after the Arab Spring, but the cruise boats stopped coming when their passengers were among the 21 fatally gunned down by extremists at the 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 militant at a beachfront resort near Sousse.

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

Many in the industry acknowledge that tourism will not fully recover until the violence and turmoil in the region subside.

In the meantime, the industry has been trying to fix what hotel owners, tour operators and tourism officials admit was a broken model — marketing Tunisia almost exclusively as a cheap, sea-and-sun, package-tour destination. They admittedly 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.

The first priority was security. Now police officers with rifles are stationed at resort roundabouts and 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 arriving vehicles, and the higher-end hotels have metal detectors. Police monitor the routes and whereabouts of tourists traveling to historic sites.

Tourism officials created websites and platforms on Twitter and Instagram. They are seeking to draw more international visitors to events like an electronic music rave in the Sahara where a “Star Wars” movie was filmed near Tozeur. And they focused marketing on specific countries like Algeria and Russia.

The efforts to lure Russians, including flying in 440 Russian travel agents to pamper at Djerba island hotels, were fruitful, with more than a tenfold increase in tourists last year to 623,000.

It helped 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 last year.

At the Golden Tulip Carthage, general manager Ghassan Jana said bookings started to recover last year because “we are selling security and not rooms.”

Reservations have returned to prerevolution levels, with 85 percent to 90 percent of the hotel full, he said.

Alexandra Azarova said she was not so confident. She gives private tours to small groups of Russians who are well off and keen to visit desert and archaeological sites. Recently she had excursions booked for about two weeks straight. But it was still early in the season and she was not seeing many tour groups or buses at the museums and ruins.

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


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