Italians return to Tunisia, to retire by the sea

Go to the market at the Tunis seaside suburb of La Marsa or to shops in Hammamet and Kelibia and you will increasingly hear Italian being spoken.
Saturday 05/10/2019
President of the Association of Italian Residents in Tunisia Donato Ladik (L) with the President of the Italian Council of State Filippo Patroni Griffi in Tunis. (Courtesy of Donato Ladik)
New home. President of the Association of Italian Residents in Tunisia Donato Ladik (L) with the President of the Italian Council of State Filippo Patroni Griffi in Tunis. (Courtesy of Donato Ladik)

TUNIS - Tunisia is an integral part of the Arab world but it is one where French language and culture are everywhere. French bureaucracy, French operating systems, French supermarket chains — and a great deal more — all constant reminders of the country’s colonial past.

But walk around Tunis and a different European link becomes apparent. The architecture is decidedly Italian and a little investigation often reveals the name of an Italian, not a French, architect on a building. There are cafes and shops with Italian names — Roma, Sorrento, Garibaldi, Rossini — all pointing towards what was once a strong Italian presence.

Italy and Tunisia have an ancient link all the way back to Carthage, Hannibal and the Romans. For centuries there were Italian merchants operating in Tunis. In the late 19th century and the early 20th, when Tunisia was under French control, most Europeans living in the country were Italian, welcomed by beys wanting to modernise the country’s economy.

In 1910, there were 105,000 Italians in Tunisia, most from Sicily, as opposed to 35,000 French. After Tunisian independence in 1956, both groups declined rapidly in number. By 1969 there were fewer than 10,000 Italians and, by 2005, 3,000, two-thirds of whom were in Tunisia to work on contracts for Italian companies.

Since the 2011 uprising, however, the trend has dramatically reversed.

Go to the market at the Tunis seaside suburb of La Marsa or to shops in Hammamet and Kelibia and you will increasingly hear Italian being spoken. Italians, particularly older Italians, are returning.

Donato Ladik, the president of the Association of Italian Residents in Tunisia, said there are almost 10,000 Italians officially resident in the country. Most of them are retirees, he said.

The largest group, some 3,200, is found in Cap Bon, east of Tunis, in Hammamet, Nabeul and Kelibia. Others, he explained, live further south in Monastir, Sousse and Mahdia and even further away in Gabes, in Tunis itself or in the seaside suburb of La Marsa. The seaside is a common factor. Almost all the Italians live within easy reach of the sea.

It is in stark contrast to the flow of mainly African migrants crossing the Mediterranean the other way, setting out towards Italy, in some cases from Tunisia itself, but, for both, it is about a search for a better life.

The Italians head to Tunisia to take advantage of its considerably cheaper cost of living, the low rate of the Tunisian dinar to the euro and its far lower taxes.

In a country where the average salary is around $273 a month, “Italians can live very, very well here,” Ladik said. Those with not particularly large pensions can have the lifestyle of a retired bank manager or senior official back home.

“They can have a beautiful villa, a cleaning lady, a lovely garden,” he said. The drop in the value of the dinar against the euro in recent years has boosted their disposable income, Ladik added.

Generous tax breaks have been a further pull. An Italian resident in Tunisia pays a fraction of what he or she would have to pay in taxes in Italy, as long as they spend a minimum of six months and one day in Tunisia. Just 20% of income is subject to tax, with the tax-take 0-32%, depending on income levels. The other 80% of income is tax-free.

Giuseppe, from Rome, who lives north of Hammamet, fewer than 100 metres from the beach, said: “My pension is not a lot, just more than 1,500 euros ($1,640) a month. I cannot live on that in Italy. Here, I can live very well on 3,000 dinars a month. That’s around 1,000 euros. I can actually save money.”

He said he is very happy, pointing out that Tunisia is not that far from Italy, the lifestyle not all that different and that, on a good day, from nearby Kelibia you can see the Italian island of Pantelleria, 70km away.

“I’ve no intention of returning to Italy. This is my home now,” he said.

Numbers of Italian pensioners are rising, said Moncef, who used to help sort out paperwork for Italians taking up residence in Tunisia and asked that his full name not be used. He said that it is not just those who find it hard to make ends meet in Italy who to retire to Tunisia.

“In Hammamet there are many senior Italian policemen, senior military officers, all with large pensions,” he said. He said he knows some with pensions of between 7,000-10,000 euros a month. That is a huge monthly income in Tunisia.

Because of tax breaks, he added, they can all afford not only to live extremely well in Tunisia but, in some cases, to help fund their children back in Italy needing help to buy a house, a car or whatever else.

“I know several who take luxury vacations elsewhere. They travel to Dubai, to the Far East. They could not do that living in Italy,” Moncef said. He noted, though, that most Italian rent their Tunisian villas.

Moncef and Ladik pointed out that the Italian authorities are not happy with the growing number of Italian pensioners settling in Tunisia and depriving them of valuable tax.

Health care might be considered a major concern for the elderly but, Ladik said, that is not an issue for most of the Italian pensioners. Many of them have access to Tunisian state health care through an agreement between Italy and Tunisia but the low cost of private treatment in Tunisia — considered by many to be as good as the standards in Europe — puts it well within the reach of almost all Italians living in the country.

The trend of Italian pensioners moving to Tunis is stirring the interest of big business. North of Tunis, planning permission has been granted for a retirement village — right by the sea, of course — that would incorporate villas, apartment blocks, a hotel, cinema, clinic, restaurants, cafes and a shopping centre. The $100 million project is intended to attract specifically Italian retirees.

In contrast to the growing movement of Italian pensioners to Tunisia, there are fewer Italian tourists heading there. “Business is not good,” said an Italian travel agent whose company focuses on selling holidays in Tunisia.

It is also in contrast to the general revival of the Tunisian tourist industry after the 2015 terrorist attacks on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis and at Sousse. So far, 2019 has been a bumper year for tourism in Tunisia. Figures indicate that from January through the end of August, 6.3 million tourists visited the country, earning it $1.2 billion.

“The Germans are coming back, the French are coming back, the British are coming back but not the Italians,” said Moncef, at least not Italian package holidaymakers. Those arriving were doing so as individuals. The Italian tour industry, worried about security, was deliberately avoiding Tunisia, he said.

It was bizarre, he added.  Italians seemed happy to have their parents retire to Tunisia but were afraid to visit it themselves.