File photo by Stringer/EPA
TUNIS, Tunisia –Still smarting from a jihadist attack that killed 21 foreign tourists last month, Tunisia is hoping to save the summer season with new security measures and an ad campaign touting its safety as a destination, but industry leaders are glum.
Tourism, which accounts for 7.0 percent of the country's economy, was already suffering from the fallout of Tunisia's 2011 revolution, when gunmen attacked the capital's Bardo National Museum on March 18, killing tourists from around Europe and further afield, as well as a policeman.
Radhouane Ben Salah, president of the Tunisian Hotel Federation, said that "it's difficult to be optimistic for the tourist season, but we will try to save the situation somewhat.
"The most worrying thing is the halt to reservations for the summer," said Ben Salah, fearing a wash-out.
The drop in bookings has been precipitous.
Former colonial power France is the number one source of Tunisia's visitors, and its National Union of Travel Agencies says bookings are off by 60% since the museum attack compared with a year earlier.
Mohamed Ali Toumi, president of the Tunisian Federation of Travel Agencies, has stressed that reassuring tourists of their safety is key.
And Tourism Minister Salma Rekik announced last week a raft of measures aimed at preventing another deadly incident.
The country will pump up security at tourist sites and on the routes to them, as well as at airports and on all means of transportation.
And riding the wave of international solidarity after the Bardo slaughter, Tunisia is playing up its image and attractions for tourists.
The authorities have launched a #TUNISIAILLBETHERE poster campaign in major cities across Europe with the support of a host of celebrities.
A website shows photos of happy individuals – men and women, old and young – holding up a sign with that message in Tunisia's signature red and white colours, or alternatively in Dutch, French, German, Italian or Polish.
More campaigns are anticipated as the summer draws closer.
Meanwhile, hoteliers and travellers say deeper problems have been left untouched for many years.
Even before the Bardo attack, the outlook for 2015 was looking dismal.
First-quarter revenues were down 6.8 percent on a year earlier, as arrivals slumped 14.2% and the number of hotel room stays fell 10.7%.
"We weren't optimistic before the Bardo incident given that the security situation wasn't 100 percent stable, but on top of that there are problems of cleanliness and the debts of tourist entities," Toumi said.
The hotel federation's Ben Salah said the sector is paying the price for not having revitalised its image from one of almost solely a sun-and-sea destination.
"Since the 1990s no political will has been shown to diversify the tourist products on offer or to improve the fragile infrastructure," he said.
Tourism in the vast Sahara desert has been limited to visits to a handful of oases and camel rides over the dunes, while Tunisia has failed to feed a growing appetite for cultural tourism and thalassotherapy spas, Ben Salah said.
Additionally, access to archaeological sites rich in Roman, Numidian and Punic history remains restricted because of an inadequate road network, limited transportation and a shortage of hotels.
Maintenance of existing infrastructure and waste-disposal add to the challenges.
Even the island of Djerba, the jewel in the crown of Tunisian tourism, made headlines last year for the garbage left piling on its streets because of the lack of a treatment plant.
Jalel Henchiri, head of the region's hotel association, said the problem was being handled and "the situation will improve at the start of the season".
Toumi is fed up with talk of garbage and mosquitoes.
"We must move, change, finance. We have a beautiful country that deserves better than this," he said. – Kaouther Larbi, AFP/Rappler.com