Thin hopes for Tunisia’s tourism recovery despite border reopening, EU signal

Algeria’s decision to indefinitely close its border described as a “big blow” to the country’s tourism sector.
Wednesday 01/07/2020
Passengers wearing face masks as a preventive measure arrive at Tunis-Carthage airport. (DPA)
Passengers wearing face masks as a preventive measure arrive at Tunis-Carthage airport. (DPA)

TUNIS – Commercial aircraft, mostly from France and Italy, landed in Tunisia for the first time in months last Saturday following a government decision to reopen air, land and sea borders.

The reopening has rekindled thin hopes of rescuing the country’s tourism sector, which was hit hard by lock-down measures imposed to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

In order to reopen its borders, which have been closed since the end of March, Tunisia has imposed a number of conditions on travellers depending on their country of departure.

Countries are classified into three zones — green, orange and red — depending on how widespread the virus is in the country of residence and the risk of contamination.

Only travellers coming from countries on the “green list” — considered the safest — can enter Tunisia without restrictions. These include Germany, China and Italy, as well as Austria, Croatia, Iceland and Switzerland.

Travellers coming from countries classified as “orange,” including France, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, Malta and Spain, will have to present a negative PCR test performed less than 72 hours before departure, the Tunisian Health Ministry said.

According to the new measures, tourists staying in hotels must limit their outdoor activities to participation in guided group tours that are compliant with health protocols.

Tunisians from the countries of departure that are on the “orange list” must agree in writing to self-quarantine for 14 days at their place of residence. However, Tunisians and foreign tourists from that list can circulate freely after six days, provided they present a new negative PCR test.

From countries classified on the “red list”, including Russia, the US, the UK and also neighbouring Algeria, only Tunisian nationals are admitted but must present a negative COVID-19 test, carry out a compulsory quarantine of seven days at a hotel at their own expense, and then do another test to be able to leave the hotel.

No foreign tourists are admitted from “red-list” countries even if Russia, the UK and Algeria are among Tunisia’s top foreign visitors.

Self-quarantined travellers will be monitored by health authorities.

The list of countries, Tunisian authorities pointed out, will be updated every three days depending on how the global health situation evolves.

In new developments that reflected the country’s success in dealing with the crisis and brought a glimmer of hope to travel operators, Tunisia was included in a list of 15 countries whose citizens will be allowed to enter the European Union starting Wednesday.

Other countries on the EU list are Algeria, Australia, Canada, Japan, Georgia, Montenegro, Morocco, New Zealand, Rwanda, Serbia, South Korea, Thailand and Uruguay. The US — which leads the world in the number of virus cases — along with Russia and Turkey– were notably excluded.

The decision by the UE to put Tunisia on its 15-country list was another reassuring signal to travellers headed for Tunisia, which obtained June 26 the Safe Travels Certification from the World Travel and Tourism Council. The country was also recommended by the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) as one of the safest countries in terms of health security.

While tourism professionals in Tunisia are happy to see borders reopening, they remain very sceptical about the industry’s prospects this year. They believe Tunisia will have a hard time recovering from the effects of COVID-19 than it did from the terrorist attacks which jolted Tunisia in 2015.

Five years ago, gunmen killed scores of foreign tourists at a beach resort near the city of Sousse and the Tunis Bardo Museum, devastating the tourism industry.

“Terrorism rocked the country after the 2011 uprising. However, we knew how to overcome it,” said Dalal Hajji, a travel agency employee.

A face shield-clad passenger arriving on the first international commercial flights from Europe speaks with a passport control officer at Tunis-Carthage International Airport. (AFP)
A face shield-clad passenger arriving on the first international commercial flights from Europe speaks with a passport control officer at Tunis-Carthage International Airport. (AFP)

“The coronavirus pandemic is a different story as it has affected the whole world at the same time,” she said, adding that neither the government nor tourism professionals “know yet how to deal with it.”

The pandemic has put a major dent in the sector, which contributes nearly 10% of Tunisia’s gross domestic product and is a key source of foreign currency.

Even as Tunisia’s borders reopen, restrictions in other nearby countries are expected to continue to strain the tourism industry.

Neighbouring Algeria, in particular, which provides more than two million tourists visiting  Tunisia during the summer,  just announced that its borders will remain closed until further notice. Its decision to indefinitely close its borders was described as a “big blow” to the country’s tourism sector by Tunisian website Tunisie Numérique.

“All of Algeria’s borders will remain closed until the end of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said President Abdelmajid Tebbboune, whose country is seeing an increase in contamination.

Algeria reported on Friday seven new deaths and 240 new cases of coronavirus in about 24 hours, its highest toll since the first case was recorded on February 17.

As Tebboune insisted that the measures will remain “until God frees us from this scourge,” experts warned prolonged restrictions could ramp up anger among Algerians who are disillusioned and holding public protest in large numbers.

“That will have a heavy cost in economic terms on the income of individuals and the state budget, and socially, by rejecting the legal system in the long term,” Nouredine Bakis, a professor of political sociology at the University of Algeria 2, told AFP.

He added that such decisions “leave the impression that the government does not have a clear strategy and institutions capable of managing the crisis.”

In Tunisia, tourism revenue declined by about 50% in the first five months of 2020 compared to the same period last year, as hotels and resorts were left empty due to lockdowns and border closures.

A health worker checks the temperature of a passenger at Tunis-Carthage airport. (DPA)
A health worker checks the temperature of a passenger at Tunis-Carthage airport. (DPA)

The North African country’s economy is expected to shrink by as much as 7% this year due to the impact of the pandemic, the worst recession in nearly 60 years, according to Tunisian Investment Minister Slim Azzabi.

Unemployment will increase by 275,000 and rise to more than 21%, according to a government study in partnership with the United Nations, he added.