Tunisian tourism sector hopes for partial return of activity soon

The sector employs more than 400,000 people.
Thursday 21/05/2020
An empty cafe overlooking the sea in the village of Sidi Bou Said, some 20 kilometres northeast of Tunis, usually a major attraction to tourists but deserted amid the pandemic. (AFP)
An empty cafe overlooking the sea in the village of Sidi Bou Said, some 20 kilometres northeast of Tunis, usually a major attraction to tourists but deserted amid the pandemic. (AFP)

TUNIS--Tunisian authorities are leaving no stone unturned in their search for solutions to the tourism crisis stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.

According to official figures published this week, tourism income this year has already dropped by 27% compared to the same period last year. Revenues were said to total 1 billion dinars ($350 million) while losses in income from the tourism sector due to the crisis were estimated at about 6 billion dinars ($2.1 billion).

The tourism sector employs more than 400,000 people, without counting many other employees, in such sectors as agribusiness, services and industry, that depend on business with hotels and tourists.

Empty beach in La Marsa, on the outskirts of the capital Tunis, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP)
Empty beach in La Marsa, on the outskirts of the capital Tunis, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP)

The sector accounts for around 14% of Tunisia’s GDP, according to the tourism ministry.

With most international borders closed since March, foreign tourists are definitely not flowing into the country. The only reliable activity for some hotels has been hosting Tunisians and foreigners who are observing a compulsory quarantine period after arriving to the country on one of the rare incoming flights.

The UN World Tourism Organisation has warned that international tourist numbers could drop by 60% to 80% in 2020.

Tourism Minister Mohammed Ali Toumi said more than 11,000 hotels are at the disposal of quarantined individuals, with some of the hotels owners volunteering their help amid the crisis.

But authorities know that’s not enough.Toumi announced Wednesday that tourist activity would resume and hotels would reopen this Sunday, two weeks earlier that the previously-scheduled third stage of de-confinement. Coffeeshops and nightclubs would open in early June.

The tourism ministry said a “sanitary protocol” is being discussed with hotel managers, travel operators and Tunisian administrations ahead of the move.

Measures, he said, would include “mass testing against COVID-19 infection in tourism areas, the imposition of quarantines, measures regarding transportation and sanitary precautions in museums and public spaces.”

Media reports say measures are expected to include temperature checks at hotel entrances, rooms being disinfected and left empty for 48 hours between guests and intensive cleaning of common areas.

Other changes could include offering fixed menus instead of buffets and giving guests the same tables and umbrellas for the length of their stay.

Tunisia has so far been spared the catastrophic rates of infection that have hit other nations, especially in nearby Europe. Tunisia has so far recorded 1,045 overall cases and 47 fatalities, as well as 862 recoveries.

Even a partial return to normal will not be possible until borders reopen. Tunisia’s main customers in Europe are not showing interest in international travel this summer. The most they will be able to do is to take some trips within the EU.

Tunisian tourism authorities have been placing their hope on Algerians, who remain confined within their own borders because of the pandemic. Last year, they were the most frequent visitors to Tunisia, numbering 3 million of the country’s 9.5 million tourists.

A bottle of hydro-alcoholic gel is placed at the reception of a five-star hotel in Hammamet, as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus. (AFP)
A bottle of hydro-alcoholic gel is placed at the reception of a five-star hotel in Hammamet, as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus. (AFP)

Domestic tourism, which constitutes 20% of the country’s tourist activity, also remains a remote prospect, as travel between Tunisian provinces is still restricted because of confinement measures. With Tunisians’ purchasing power atrophying due to economic difficulties, tourism spending is also not a priority for many.

Hotel owners face financial difficulties of their own. While the country’s improved security situation allowed the sector to recover in 2019, they are now faced with limited customers due to the health crisis.

After years of accumulated bad loans, Tunisian banks do not want to be dragged into an insolvency spiral of the hotel industry. The Tunisian government stepped in this week, saying it would allocate nearly $175 million to help hotels deal with the financial fallout of the pandemic. But the credits, which will be used as bank loan guarantees by hotel owners, will not be sufficient to make up for this year’s income shortfall or for the structural deficit of years past.

Despite the determined efforts of the country’s authorities, 2020 is bound to be a very testing year for Tunisia’s tourism sector.