Tunisian Minister of Tourism Mohamed Ali Toumi says country 'ready and safe'
TUNIS - "Ready and Safe" is the slogan chosen by Tunisia for its tourism re-launch campaign. As the North African country readies to open its borders on June 27 and become one of the first nations in the world to formally sanction the return of activity in the vital sector, authorities are showing a lot of optimism and self-confidence.
“We are eager to welcome tourists," Tunisian Tourism Minister Mohamed Ali Toumi told The Arab Weekly in an exclusive interview.
As one of the major foundations of the national economy, the tourism sector constituted some 14.2% of Tunisia's GDP in 2019. According to a KPMG study, Tunisian tourism generates around 100,000 direct jobs, 289,000 indirect jobs, 98,000 permanent jobs and 291,000 casual jobs. Around 9.4% of the working population in Tunisia derives its income from the tourism sector.
Since the coronavirus crisis, the country has been trying to control the damage and provide support to this vulnerable but vital sector. Toumi, appointed last June, had been active in travel and tourism for over twenty years. He served as the president of the Tunisian Federation of Travel Agencies (FTAV) from 2011 to 2018.
Tunisian authorities believe the country's successful control of the pandemic makes a full-fledged reopening of the sector possible. According to the Tunisian Ministry of Health, no local contamination has been recorded for more than 20 days and about a third of Tunisian governorates are COVID-19-free, a feat that gives wings to the travel and tourism sector.
Praised by Toumi, the Tunisian government's efforts to contain the fallout of the pandemic were essentially based on two key considerations: “preserving jobs and preparing businesses for recovery."
Moreover, a unique and detailed health protocol has been developed with the aim of protecting both tourists and employees. “The main measures concern the occupancy rate which must not exceed 50%, the distancing in swimming pools and places of activity, the elimination of self-service in addition to continuous cleaning and disinfection starting with luggage at the airport," he said.
The positive assessment by international organisations such as the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) on the precautionary measures taken by Tunisia could prompt authorities to reopen their international airspace earlier than planned.
However, the long-awaited revival of a sector that welcomed 9.4 million tourists in 2019 with a record revenues of 5.6 billion dinars ($1.98 billion) will take some time. “Accurate estimates of this year's figures are not yet possible, but personally my ambition is to reach half of last year's revenue," Toumi said.
Toumi eyes new strategies to pull the sector out of its decades-old stagnation. But today, he is confident that the sector is ready for business again.
“We have done our job and now we are waiting to welcome you, your families and your friends in Tunisia within safety and security!” concluded Toumi with smile.
The Arab Weekly: M. Toumi, you were appointed head of the ministry at a very delicate time, at both political and health levels. How did you prepare for this mission?
Mohamed Ali Toumi: When I was contacted to be offered the post of Minister of Tourism, the coronavirus crisis had not yet grown to the extent reached later. I accepted the mission as a Tunisian who sees himself as one of the soldiers of this country, but also because I have known the sector very well for more than 20 years and I have a vision for Tunisian tourism. So, I told myself that this is an opportunity to apply this vision, with the support of the professionals, in order to have a stronger and more solid sector.
When I was officially appointed to head the department, the COVID-19 crisis had taken a different turn. We found ourselves, instead of managing a ministry that was in an excellent situation with the successful seasons of 2018 and 2019, at the centre of a crisis that requires well-determined management. I consider that the government, and not only the Ministry of Tourism, has managed this crisis very well by opting for anticipation and prevention, and it is for this reason that we are in this situation today. We knew how to make the right decisions at the right time. Our sector was also a key player in this anticipation through putting hotels, transportation, meals, cleaning campaigns etc. at the service of the country. All of this work has helped achieve the good results we see today and the classification of Tunisia as one of the few COVID-Safe countries in the world. We invested in crisis management and thank God we succeeded.
TAW: The pandemic has struck all countries of the world hard and its consequences are palpable everywhere. Tunisia has certainly not been spared.
MT: We must remember that a catastrophic impact will be observed on all world economies. So far, Tunisia has managed the crisis well. Today, we see developed countries on their knees because of this pandemic. In return, Tunisia, this small country, has not ceased to amaze the world and has succeeded in its mission with limited resources. This country, where the public health sector has been singled out for years, has managed the crisis brilliantly, and no one expected this. This is a second feat, after the success against the COVID-19.
TAW: What was and will be the cost of the coronavirus on the tourism sector in Tunisia?
MT: At the start of the crisis, I said that losses could reach 6 billion dinars ($2.12 billion). At the time, we were still in the phase of managing a health crisis, we imagined that the tourism year was over and that we have to wait for March/ April 2021 for the revival of the sector. The success that we recorded thereafter allowed us to catch up. So far so good, and if we continue like this after June 27, we can save the summer season. No one dared to dream of that. Nevertheless, accurate estimates of this year's figures are not yet possible, but personally my ambition is to reach half of last year's revenue, that is around 2.6 billion dinars ($920 million). Maybe I’m too ambitious, but I would rather set an ambitious goal than be pessimistic.
TAW: What is the authorities' plan to help professionals in the sector that has been weakened by the extraordinary situation?
MT: Since the start of the crisis, the government has tried to save as many jobs and businesses as possible and to focus on the social side. That was the number one priority. Among the important measures was the ease of granting loans with simplified steps and the sole condition of retaining employees and preserving employment. The plan is therefore essentially based on preserving jobs and preparing businesses for recovery with loans of up to 40% of their monthly turnover in 2019.
TAW: The borders will be reopened on June 27. Do you think the sector is psychologically ready?
MT: Yes. More than ready, we are eager to welcome the tourists. In Tunisia, tourism is in our veins. We were always a crossroads of civilisations, Carthage was founded by Alyssa, a Phoenician and this country has always extended its hand to all. Here, tourism is a locomotive sector and an important one for the national economy, so yes, we are ready.
TAW: You said a few days ago that "the capital of Tunisia is its credibility." Can you explain?
MT: That means we have no right to make mistakes. There are competing countries which announced dates, then went back on their words. So, for us, if we make a mistake, we will pay cash. Our one and only capital is therefore to keep our word. When we announce something, we do it. In such a situation, only through honesty can we get out of the crisis and convince our partners to send their nationals. So far, our steps have been solid, and I hope we will continue to do so.
TAW: Once tourists start to flock, how will the sector adapt to the pandemic in terms of products offered, travel and accommodation? Are you targeting limited groups, fewer beach activities?
MT: I invite you to read the health protocol that we have prepared and which includes 250 measures. I can assure you that the Ministry of Tourism has left nothing to chance. The main measures concern the occupancy rate, which must not exceed 50%, the distance in swimming pools and places of activity, the prohibition of certain activities organised in closed places, the elimination of self-service in addition to continuous cleaning and disinfection starting with luggage at the airport.
TAW: What about medical precautions inside and outside hotels?
MT: Through this protocol, we focus more on prevention than medical assistance. The sanitary circuit implemented extends from the airport to the hotel, and even includes activities outside the hotel and touristic spots.
TAW: Tunisia’s success with the coronavirus has been praised by various parties, especially abroad. The World Tourism Organisation (WTO) has even announced it as a safe destination, an exception in the region. Do you think this will help in some way revive tourist activities?
MT: It can help enormously, since the appreciation and valorisation of the health protocol prepared by Tunisia will have an impact on decisions of countries considered as traditional markets to open the airspace to and from Tunisia. Europe, for example, has not yet opened its borders, but with trust and with such testimonies praising the Tunisian experience in managing the pandemic, countries will be more and more convinced that the destination is safe. All this, complemented by credibility, the measures announced, promotional videos and the health protocol, will encourage tour operators to defend Tunisia as a “Ready and Safe” destination, citizens to choose it as a safe destination and ministries of foreign affairs to lift the ban and resume air links. So, the recognition of Tunisia's efforts and the praise from the big organisations encourage us and encourage other countries to be open to Tunisia again.
TAW: The preparation to receive tourists has already started, particularly through the announcement of the health protocol. What are your priorities in terms of promotions and countries of origin?
MT: We aim for our traditional markets. Diversification is part of our strategy, but it is not on the current agenda. To overcome the crisis and recover from it, we mainly rely on partners that we already know and trust. Our traditional markets are known, namely Algeria, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, the Czech Republic, etc.
TAW: And these markets declared themselves ready to send tourists to Tunisia?
MT: Yes, all these countries are ready and actually want to send their nationals to Tunisia. The questions that arise are "how and when." We have made very good progress so far and I think we will soon see the fruit of this labour.
TAW: Tunisian tourism has always been based on mass arrivals and the seaside. What is your vision, M. Toumi, for the future of this sector?
MT: The principle is to diversify the product and the markets. Tunisian tourism, built in the 60s and 70s, is today in a phase of stagnation. Therefore, we have to catch up and find solutions that are essentially based on the local product. The seaside, which remains an excellent asset, should be supported by other products in order to give choice to the classic tourist and to meet the needs of other customers who seek other types of travel. We have an impressive potential, both tangible and intangible, which has not yet been developed. We must find the appropriate markets and develop our communication plan towards more digitalisation. We missed the opportunity to take Tunisia to the next level in the past, we will not miss it again.
TAW: Is the search for new markets part of your strategy? For example, the number of Arab visitors to Tunisia remains very limited. Does this market interest you?
MT: When we talk about product diversification, we're talking about market diversification and we're talking about new air routes. The goal is therefore to create a product that attracts value-added markets. These latter require an appropriate infrastructure with, for example, luxury hotels, a rich extra-hotel life, impeccable cleanliness and good entertainment. The other point to be addressed is the absence of direct airlines with several countries, namely North or South America or China. It is a whole vision that must translate into an action plan and the implementation of means allowing its application. This is my 2021-2025 program.
TAW: If you can address foreigners who are still hesitant to visit Tunisia, what can you say to them?
MT: I would tell them that everything has been readied so that they can have a safe vacation. We have done our job and now we are waiting to welcome you, your families and your friends in Tunisia within safety and security. Come and discover this country, its beauty, its atmosphere, its beaches, its archaeological sites in top conditions. You are welcome!