Number of Libyans in Tunisia set to grow
Tunis - Tunisia’s tourist industry, accounting for 7% of gross national product with 350,000 jobs directly linked to it, has taken a hammering since the terror attacks in Tunis and the coastal resort of Sousse.
The effects can be seen on the ground. Hotels have closed in Sousse, Hammamet and other tourist centres. Walking along Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, foreigners are noticeable because of their absence. You notice those there because they are so few. What you do see on the streets of the capital and elsewhere in Tunisia are large numbers of vehicles with Libyan and Algerian registration plates.
The groups of Algerians and Libyans are very different. The Algerians, like Europeans, come for short breaks, often just a long weekend. They generally visit in larger numbers during the summer but, with vacations over, they have mostly gone back home.
With the Libyans, it is different. Falling into groups of visitors and residents, they are making a significant contribution to the Tunisian economy. “We are taking the place of the foreign tourists,” one Libyan official claimed in Tunis.
There is some truth to the claim.
The number of Libyans staying medium to long term in Tunisia is put at between 800,000 and more than 1 million, depending on who is talking. Certain Tunisian and Libyan sources think their number is much lower. The Libyan community in Tunisia is the result of different waves of exiles: those who arrived during the Qaddafi era; those who supported Qaddafi and who left Libya after the revolution; and those who left as a result of clashes or the collapse in services and the quality of life over the past couple of years.
It is estimated that in the 16 months since Tripoli International Airport was attacked and the government fled the Libyan capital, some 200,000 Libyans have moved to Tunisia.
“We’re renting apartments. We’re buying food and clothes. We’re spending money, just like the tourists,” said Mustafa, a Tripoli resident who arrived with his wife, two sons and parents a year ago. “But we’re here all the time and we’re bringing in cash from abroad. We’re not working here.”
In statistical terms, 200,000 Libyans living for a year in Tunisia represent the equivalent of more than 3.8 million weekly tourists — and most package tourists stay just one week.
It has to be admitted that the resident Libyans are not doing much for the Tunisian tourist industry but others are. In the four- and five-star hotels in the Tunis seaside resort of Gammarth, Libyans can be seen everywhere. In Sfax, too, they ar-rive in ever larger numbers. Libyan short-term visitors to Tunisia — for weekend breaks, for health reasons, for training courses, for a week-long vacation — are many.
Until just a few weeks ago, those from western Libya travelled by car but at the beginning of August Tunisia again permitted passenger flights from Tripoli and Misrata airports. Libyan airlines are flying five or six times a day to Tunis and another two or three to Sfax. Flights are full, having been booked up well in advance.
It is a very profitable route for the carriers, so much so that Tunisian airlines are about to relaunch services to Libya. Tunisair says that it will restart flights to Tripoli’s Mitiga airport as of October 25th.
With the unintentional help of Turkey, the number of Libyan travellers heading west is expected to increase.
On September 24th, Turkey introduced visa controls. It had been one of just three countries that allowed Libyans to visit without a visa, Tunisia and Jordan being the other two.
Although the Turks announced the change well in advance, few Libyans seemed to have been listening. Contrary to standard international practice, Libyan carriers flew their passengers to Istanbul without visas and then had to fly them home when they were refused entry.
It is widely believed that a grenade thrown in late September at the Turkish consulate in Misrata, was the action of an irate traveller who had been sent back because he did not have a visa. The consulate, now closed, was the last remaining Turkish diplomatic presence in the country.
As a result of the visas, which take about a month to obtain, the number of flights from Tripoli to Istanbul dropped to two or three a day compared to six in mid-September.
In Tunisia, no government department or organisation has put a figure on the amount of money Libyans are bringing in, whether as short-term visitors or long-term residents. But the presence of so many Libyans suggest it runs into several billion Tunisian dinars.
Far more than what Tunisia expects to lose as a result of consequences of the terrorist attacks, it is a major boost to the Tunisian economy — although it will not help save the thousands of jobs being lost in the country’s tourism industry.