A midsummer postcard from Hammamet

Friday 31/07/2015
A view of Hammamet (Photo: Tunisian ministry of tourism)

The posh suburb of La Marsa, 16 kilometres north of Tunis, looked unusually calm the morning of Sunday July 26th. The streets of the small picturesque town, usually a magnet for foreign tourists and local visitors, seemed almost deserted. Since the Bardo and Sousse terror attacks, the number of foreign tourists visiting Tunisia has plummeted. Many of the Tunisian middle class have also been in no mood for unnecessary expenses.
Tunisian tourist diehards have headed to other destinations, such as to the Hammamet resort, about 60 kilometres south of Tunis. So did I. The streets, the outdoor cafés and the beaches there were crowded. It was mostly Tunisians, however. Foreign tourists as else­where in the country have yet to come back.
Entering the lobby of the hotel where I had reserved my stay online, it was clear that steps were being taken to cut costs due to the lack of tourists. The lights were slightly dimmed and the air condi­tioning seemed to be on low.
A Tunisian friend I had told about the online rates called the hotel and asked for the same price. But she was quoted 150 Tunisian dinars, per person, per room. Thus, a total of 300 Tunisian dinars (about $150) a night against the $61 rate I could book. To salvage some of the season and avoid layoffs, hotels could have lowered rates making domestic travel more ap­pealing to Tunisians. Many did not. Minister of Tourism Selma Elloumi admitted in a recent interview with a Tunisian paper that “a number of hotels did not reduce prices”.
It was about a month ago that a lone Tunisian terrorist mowed down 38 people on a Sousse beach and wounded another 32. A tragedy for sure, not only for the wounded and those murdered, but for Tuni­sia’s tourism industry, which em­ploys more than 400,000 people.
The British Foreign Office in the aftermath of the incident advised all UK citizens to leave Tunisia, and British tour operators cancelled all bookings until October. “The Sousse attack struck at our most growing market, that is the British market,” noted Elloumi.
In an interview with the Tu­nisian weekly Assabah al-Usbui, Radouane Ben Salah, the president of the Tunisian hotel federation, estimated the percentage of hotel reservation cancellations in July at about 70%.
Hotels in Hammamet and Sousse are hoping for an inflow of tourists from neighbouring Algeria.
No less than 1.3 million Algerians visited Tunisia last year. “There might be more this year,” said Elloumi. The head of the hotel federation, however, was quoted as saying that until now the number of Algerians is much less than it was last year.
The layoff of workers, already taking place, could put Tunisia’s economic recovery in jeopardy. Skander Mestiri, director general of Dar el Marsa in La Marsa, one of the newest breed of upscale boutique hotels in the country, said: “Un­fortunately, this summer season is already finished.”
But he and other hotel owners are hoping tourism promotion strategies are rethought in the fu­ture. Mestiri, for instance, believes Tunisia should diversify its foreign clientele by “adding more upscale offerings”.
Even more important in Mestiri’s opinion is implementing an open-skies policy for airline travel to and from Tunisia. “Let’s put Tunisia first, rather than Tunisair,” concurs an American tour operator referring to the state-owned national carrier. “It is time that the country ben­efited from the aggregate increase in tourists that open skies has shown it has brought to Morocco, Malta, Turkey and other countries,” he said.
While the authorities review their security measures, this is clearly the time for more innova­tive ideas, bold decisions and decisive action to save tourism in Tunisia.