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Carthage - Tunisian suburbia

On Tuesday 22 November, despite messages of assurance from chief executive Sam Weihagen, Thomas Cook shares went into free-fall as it was announced that the company was in discussions with banks after the “deterioration of trading in some areas of the business”, notably Tunisia and Egypt.

The instability in North Africa and the Middle East is now adding to the long list of financial woes.  Every market thrives on confidence and the tourist industry is no different.

The Arab Spring has been welcomed almost universally as a movement of positive change but almost one year on, with the situation being far from settled, a new democratic and stable region is far from a certainty.  This creates problems for everyone but especially for countries such as Tunisia who are working hard to re-establish themselves.

The medina in Kairouan

Tourism accounts for 20% of Tunisia’s exports but in November Tunisia Live reported that according to Habib Ammar (head of the National Office of Tunisian Tourism), the number of tourists visiting Tunisia declined by over a third and the income generated by tourism dropped by 38.5%.  Unemployment has reached 18.3% and foreign currency reserves have dropped dramatically too.  Tunisia has steered through a peaceful transition, successful elections, and a quick return to normality, but it is not clear of turbulent waters yet.

For the gains of the Arab Spring to consolidate it is essential that the economies of the countries involved be established quickly.  For Tunisia and Egypt this will be very dependent upon the tourists returning in sufficient numbers.

Tunisians are positive about the changes brought about by the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ and optimistic about the future; but the call-centre workers and teachers are just as keen as the waiters and hoteliers to see tourists return and acknowledge that even for the time of year, there are fewer visitors in the country.

There is heightened security in Tunis, with razor wire enclosures and military guards around key municipal buildings on the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, but local Wissen Trabelsi attested that he was happy that the soldiers were there; he felt safer that way.

Armoured vehicle on Ave Habib Bourguiba

Apart from this extra security Tunisia appears very stable and normal.  In some places you would be hard pushed to believe the country has seen such significant events in recent months.

In Carthage, with immaculately turned out middle-class teenagers cruising around among the wide palm-lined suburban streets, you could be mistaken for thinking you were on the set of a Tunisian version of Beverley Hills 90210.

At the Five Star Mövenpick hotel in Sousse you would not guess that there were economic challenges anywhere in the world, let alone in Tunisia.  The magnificent scale of the pristine frontage is an edifice to wealth, and inside it is a tranquil oasis of prosperity.

In reality, poverty is never far away.  A few metres from another Five Star hotel, this time at the Kasbah in Kairouan, people can be observed picking out rotten pomegranates and torn jeans from among the sheep carcasses left over from Eid.  There are also plenty of men hanging around in tourist areas hoping to turn a conversation into a few dinars.

Despite the economic challenges, there are hosts of people who epitomise the friendly and positive nature that Tunisia is proud of.  Fedia, a Fine Arts student in Sousse, is optimistic about finishing her Master’s degree and getting a job.  Hedi Chouri, a restaurant owner is also confident about the future, that the tourists will return, and business will pick up again.

Roman Baths at Carthage

The tourists are generally positive about the situation too.  There are people picking up a last minute deals such as Dirk Kirchmann, a German tourist travelling in the desert regions around Matmata and Tataouine with his partner.  They have no concerns about their security but can empathise with others who might decide not to visit Tunisia. The message being given out by the media in Europe does not always inspire confidence.

Clicking on any destinations in Tunisia on TripAdvisor prompts a red ‘Security Concerns’ banner to appear at the top of the screen.  One could be led to believe that the security situation in Tunisia was as bad as Egypt when taking a cursory glance at these warnings.  Many people will be put off without going into the detail of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice.

The global financial crisis of recent years has shown that no economy is an island and therefore for everyone’s sake we have to hope that tourism picks up. For Tunisia, the place where the Arab Spring began, this is of particular importance as people across the region are looking to how they prosper.  Now the country’s future needs a boost from people seeking Tunisian sun, sand and souks.