Tunisia is safe but has difficulty getting that message across
Tunis - The attack on Tunisia’s Bardo Museum on March 18th, which left 23 people dead and more than 50 others injured, was not only a tragedy for the families of those who died or were injured. It was a shock to Tunisians.
The widespread repercussions have directly affected tourism prospects.
Following the relative success of 2014’s transitional government in adopting a new constitution and holding free and transparent elections in 2014 there was hope that 2015 would resurrect an image of stability and quiet in Tunisia and see increased tourism and foreign investment.
The Bardo attack dimmed such hopes for recovery. “In 2014, we had 30% cancellations due to the scepticism of many cruise lines regarding the elections,” Mustapha Jabeur, chief executive officer (CEO) of Goulette Shipping Cruise, the port where cruise ships arrive when Tunis is included in Mediterranean cruises.
On days when the cruise ships arrive in Tunis, the economic hum can be felt in many ways. Bus and transport companies have fleets of vehicles shuttling from site to site around Tunis. Taxis are busy. Tourism guides are working. Restaurants and shops in the historic medina of Tunis or in the picturesque village of Sidi Bou Said see the tourists attract more business.
According to Jabeur, major lines such as Costa, Pullmantur, Aida Cruises, Holland America, Princess and Regency have either cancelled or say they are monitoring the situation before make itinerary decisions. Most cruise lines that have cancelled have done so through 2016.
This concern was echoed by hotels. Summer is Tunisia’s peak season. “We had lots of cancellations, about 900 guests cancelled from all origins. But the most disturbing is the nearly complete stop of any new bookings,” says Makram Halloul, the marketing director of the four-star Riadh Palm Hotel on the Sousse seafront. Halloul understands very well the implications of this not only for the summer 2015 but for the months that follow.
Halloul says the government needs a strategy that lets clients feel “Tunisia is safe and that the Bardo incident was an exceptional incident and not part of an ongoing terrorist threat.”
Most Tunisians see the Bardo tragedy as an isolated incident. The Jewish pilgrimage to the Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba last April took place without any incident. The sight of young Tunisian women driving alone at late hours highlights the same sense of security. But, as of yet, there has been little structured effort to consistently deliver this message.
Even at the upper end of the hotel scene, where hotels rely on visiting business delegations, the effects of the Bardo incident were immediate. “Normally, our cancellation percentage does not exceed 1.5% of the total monthly reservation number,” said Wissem Arfa, marketing director for the five-star Movenpick Hotel and Spa in Gammarth, a seaside section of Tunis. Immediately after the attack, “the cancellation percentage rose to 35%”, he noted.
“The silence that has been the response of the tourism authorities is what is shocking,” says a US tour operator who regularly works with upper-end organisations such as American university alumni groups, prestigious organisations such as the Archaeological Institute of America, as well as many private parties visiting Tunisia on customised tours of more than a week with private guides and vehicles.
While Americans represent a tiny percentage of the tourists visiting Tunisia, their spending averages eight to ten times that of European tourists and includes travel during Tunisia’s low to mid seasons when many hotels and restaurants are particularly appreciative of seeing visiting Americans.
“Silence and the lack of a communication strategy only reinforce the image abroad that Tunisia is not safe,” notes the company’s president with frustration.
The lack of a visible and consistent marketing strategy provides little reason to suggest that 2015 can be salvaged. Reviving hopes for 2016 will be an uphill battle. Tour operators in Europe, either cruise or land operators, are finding alternatives.
Tourism-related revenues represent about 7% of Tunisia’s gross domestic product (GDP) with 400,000- 500,000 people employed by the sector.
Studies have strongly encouraged diversifying Tunisia’s tourism offerings. Arfa notes, “The [UN] World Travel Organization (UNWTO) and other studies show that 40% of all worldwide tourism revolves around cultural activities. It’s time for the Tunisian Tourism authority to open new markets to diversity their tourism revenues and overcome the over reliance on European tourists.”
Action, not silence, is the only way Tunisia can hope to stimulate the economy and defeat terrorists bent on tarnishing Tunisia’s image. Foreign tour operators and travel companies could maybe make an exceptional effort to promote Tunisia. It is a beautiful and safe destination even if its official marketers are not saying so.