Pandemic, slow vaccination smothers Tunisia tourism despite easing of curbs

Tourism Minister Habib Ammar would like to vaccinate workers in the sector quickly to reassure visitors. “Unfortunately there is a problem with the vaccine stocks, which did not allow the implementation of this strategy,” he said.
Tuesday 25/05/2021
A camel owner  waits for tourists outside El Jem’s amphitheatre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in the late 3rd century, in El Jem, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak.  (REUTERS)
A camel owner waits for tourists outside El Jem’s amphitheatre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in the late 3rd century, in El Jem, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak.(REUTERS)

EL JEM, Tunisia--Two Bulgarian visitors stood in the ancient El Jem amphitheatre, one of Tunisia’s top attractions, alone apart from swallows flitting under stone arches, a sight foretelling another tourist season wrecked by COVID-19.

The 3rd century structure, so symbolic of Tunisia that it features on the 20-dinar note, usually receives about 190,000 visitors a year, but in 2020 only 45,000 came and so far this year it has been deserted most of the time.

Over the past two weeks numbers have picked up a little after the government relaxed quarantine rules for package tours to salvage some foreign revenue from the summer high season, but they are still nowhere near where they were pre-pandemic.

“There are no tourists and the beach is empty. It is very sad,” said Tatiana Vasileva, one of the two Bulgarians. She had arrived in Tunisia two days earlier and joined a tour to El Jem arranged by her hotel.

In the plaza outside the amphitheatre, tourism businesses are slowly dying, as they are across the country, putting lives on hold and driving people into other walks of life.

Aroussi Obay, 42, has invested savings into olive oil production to raise money while his antique shop idles. His neighbour Nofal Zeid, 43, has delayed his wedding for lack of income from his El Hana cafe.

“I have postponed all my projects, even my marriage,” said Zeid, who has laid off the few family members he usually employs in the summer season.

But though days pass without a customer, he has laid each of the seven tables facing the amphitheatre with a bright red cloth and a bowl of oranges, ready for business.

Tunisia, which is dependent on foreign help to obtain COVID-19 vaccines, is struggling with low stocks.

It has been allocated 4.3 million doses through the COVAX scheme for poorer countries, but only 670,000 of them have arrived. It has received some other doses through a separate agreement with Pfizer.

As a result, only 800,000 people out of its population of 11.6 million have been vaccinated so far, offering little prospect of reducing infection rates sufficiently to lure large numbers of visitors away from rival European destinations.

Tourism Minister Habib Ammar would like to vaccinate workers in the sector quickly to reassure visitors. “Unfortunately there is a problem with the vaccine stocks, which did not allow the implementation of this strategy,” he said.

Deserted Beaches 

Most tourists come to Tunisia for its long white beaches, but it also offers ruined Roman cities, cork forests, medieval mosques, Star Wars film sets and Saharan oases.

Tourism normally accounts for about a tenth of the economy. Its collapse after militants attacked a beach and a museum in 2015 caused an economic crisis, but the sector had been recovering before COVID-19 hit.

Obay’s shop in El Jem is a trove of copper trays, African masks, rustic chests, replica Roman figurines, Berber rugs and prettily-painted window shutters.

“Before the pandemic I would sell several items a day. Now days go by without any sale,” he said.

Outside, a camel kneels, ready to give rides to tourists on its striped, padded cushions, but none come.

“I’m eating into my savings,” said its owner, Fathi Bouzayan, 53, whose family have offered camel rides in El Jem for generations.

The biggest nearby beach town is Sousse, where the Movenpick Resort & Marine Spa is employing only about half its usual 550 staff, its sales and marketing director Zied Maghrebi said.

Along the brilliant turquoise coastal waters, mile after mile of resorts stand nearly empty and in the Movenpick pool a single child twisted in the water, engrossed in a private game.