Rebuilding tourism in MENA after pandemic requires new tack

For Tunisia, this could be the time to steer away from the old mass tourism model.
Thursday 28/05/2020
Medical doctors inspect the facilities of a hotel in the Tunisian city of Mahdia. (AFP)
Medical doctors inspect the facilities of a hotel in the Tunisian city of Mahdia. (AFP)

The tourism industry was brought to a total worldwide standstill by mid-March 2021 due to the spread of COVID-19. Hotels closed, as did borders around the world. The financial toll has had a devastating impact everywhere in the tourism and hospitality industry. Even worldwide companies such as Hertz Rent-a-Car, the largest rental car company in the world, have been forced to declare bankruptcy. Many airlines are unsure whether they will be able to survive and hotels previously well-endowed have permanently closed. Most importantly, those who earned from tourism or related industries have seen their income drop, in most cases to zero!

The tourism industry is essential to providing jobs in many countries and provides important cash reserves and GDP. Tourism is one of, if not the, major revenue source in many countries of the Middle East and North Africa.

Despite some successes by countries that acted early to curtail the spread of the virus by implementing strict guidelines on social distancing and preventative health measures, the road to revived tourism activity faces many challenges ahead.

Tunisia is one of many countries that fit the above paradigm. With 11 million people, tourism accounts for 7% of the country’s GDP. With the country’s employment of a large percentage of the population in hotels, ancillary services, food and equipment providers and more, Tunisia is financially dependent on tourism. The sector began to recover in 2018 and 2019 from the devastation to the industry brought on by the so-called “Arab Spring," which began in January 2011 with demonstrations preceding the departure of longtime authoritarian ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and subsequent government instability, terror attacks, political assassinations and social unrest. Tunisia’s tourism industry was hoping that 2020 would be the biggest year ever following the momentum of the past two years, with official statistics showing 2019 as a record-breaking year with more than 9 million visitors. But COVID-19 brought the same abrupt halt to Tunisia’s tourism industry that it has in almost every country worldwide, with planes not flying, hotels emptied and governments trying to control the virus through home sheltering.

With less than 80 active COVID-19 cases, Tunisia's toll is miraculously low for a country of 11 million people. While no one can accurately put their finger on the reason for this, many theories abound -- the country's fairly robust health system, educated population, low to modest housing density and the impact of BCG, or bacille Calmette-Guerin, a vaccine for tuberculosis (TB) that has been available in the country since independence. Some medical studies link the BCG vaccine to higher immunity to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is the individual people who work in the tourism industry -- hotel workers, drivers, guides, restaurant workers and tour companies -- that are truly the footsoldiers. It is not enough for a country’s government to try and financially bail themselves out, even if modestly. While countries like Tunisia, Morocco, Greece, Egypt and other nations  that are highly dependent on tourism have tried to show their success in fighting COVID-19, the bigger question is what it will take to get the consumer, the traveler, to feel like getting on a plane again and going to these countries? Therein lies the biggest challenge to come. What must countries do to stand up to this challenge?

Many prospective tourists will be hesitant to travel absent a COVID-19 vaccine. But that is only one issue. After so much success among countries worldwide in lowering the pandemic toll by adhering to strict controls of sheltering, mask-wearing and social distancing, the industry that is the mainstay for many countries is still the mass tourism model. That means hotels and countries like Tunisia that have aimed to maximise the number of tourists and beds per night must rethink their strategies. How can there be a return to prior strategies?

Tourists walk near a pool at Hasdrubal Hotel in Hammamet, Tunisia. (Reuters)
Tourists walk near a pool at Hasdrubal Hotel in Hammamet, Tunisia. (Reuters)

Tourists will likely want to avoid hotel-restaurants that have hundreds of people in the dining rooms for breakfast or dinner. Self-service buffets will need to become a thing of the past, as clients do not want to be in environments where mass socialisation can breed the spread of germs, as well as the inability to keep hygiene standards under strict control. Crowded swimming pools and beaches will also be seen as breeding grounds for another wave of the pandemic.

Thus, the prior strategy of growing tourism in Tunisia and many other countries may no longer be advisable in the post COVID-19 environment. Changes will no doubt have to be made to the industry. Hygiene, often not at the highest of standards in many countries, will have to be taken to a level that has never been achieved before. Hotels that depend on volume and mass tourism may find many people unwilling to return to past destinations if there are no major changes to ensure the highest standards of prevention against the virus.

So is there is a light at the end of the tunnel for countries like Tunisia that have relied on mass tourism?

An employee arranges sunbathing chairs on a beach in Hammamet, Tunisia. (Reuters)
An employee arranges sunbathing chairs on a beach in Hammamet, Tunisia. (Reuters)

Tunisia has for decades been advised by experts to develop yet another sub-set of tourism. It could and should aim to cater to more upscale tourists who prefer to explore the country in smaller groups and/or independently. That option is also more financially lucrative for the hosts. Such clients frequently prefer to stay in smaller properties, boutique hotels and no doubt have contributed to the tremendous growth of such marketing directions as Airbnb or Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO).

Properties with far fewer rooms and more personalised service, often with property owners’ direct oversight, can ensure much higher standards of hygiene and density than mass tourism venues, where the margins per person are considerably higher, allowing for a higher staffing to client ratio.

These are the very types of strategies that have long been pitched by consultant after consultant to Tunisia’s tourism industry. Consulting groups such as the World Bank and International Financial Corporation have provided studies on the very subject, including a joint World Bank/IFC report in 2012 titled “Tourism and Debt Resolution" that I co-authored.

This report and others have been sitting on Tunisia's shelves for years now. Despite pledges by past Tunisian tourism authorities to implement the strategies, they have never gone beyond the “talk" phase. Perhaps implementing such strategies now can be a panacea to help rebuild Tunisia's tourism economy, as well as a model for other countries looking for strategies on how to move forward.