Tunisia’s Desert Rose train waiting for a chance to run
Tunis - The Desert Rose train was supposed to take passengers on a journey of exploration and discovery across Tunisia, traversing beautiful regions that have remained outside traditional tourist circuits.
But following the 2015 terrorist attacks on the Bardo Museum and in Sousse, the planned trips came to a halt and the eco-tourist project remains stalled by security concerns.
The project began in June 2014 when the Tunisian Ministry of Tourism joined with travel agencies and the Tunisian national railways company to develop the idea by Tarek Nefzi, a Tunisian private expert in eco-tourism.
“I have spent years discovering ecological assets of different parts of Tunisia, the western region, the mountains, the interior regions,” Nefzi said. “But using cars with clients in such a journey was quite uncomfortable.
“Then we thought: Why not use railways to do these kinds of trips?”
Stops along the way would allow tourists to appreciate the exceptional scenery, cuisine, traditions and culture of the region and its towns. The Desert Rose’s route crosses breathtaking scenery, bridges, historic train stations and archaeological ruins.
The goal was to promote environmental tourism in some of the least visited parts of Tunisia and highlight cultural and historic assets of the country’s outer reaches. An additional objective was to boost the economy in regions that have not been part of the traditional tourism circuit. The train would depart from and return to Tunis after stopping at sites in the north, centre and south of the country.
“The train of the Desert Rose represents a new form of tourism contributing to the development of the marginalised regions. At every train station, we would establish a network of services, including guides, transportation and food,” Nefzi explained. This would help local artisans showcase their products and provide job opportunities in the towns and villages.
The train would revive the economy of the regions and be a catalysing force for economic activity complementary to agriculture in those regions, Nefzi said. It would also diversify revenue there and provide employment.
He saw each journey of the Desert Rose taking 40 people on a nine-day trip exploring the towns of Kef, Haidra, Sbeitla, Metlaoui and Tozeur, among others. While the inaugural trip lasted four days and visited only the north-west, Nefzi said he expected future journeys to extend to the southern towns of Redeyef and Metlaoui.
The Desert Rose’s first journey took place February 25th and used a train dating from the 1960s that was used by former president Habib Bourguiba for VIP journeys.
The organisers took security concerns of the train and its passengers into serious consideration.
“The train passes near the Chaambi mountain, with a stop at Kasserine dedicated to bio-agriculture and a visit to the park, which is of unique ecological richness,” Nefzi said. “We had an agreement with the army and the Ministry of Interior to secure the passage of the train with a helicopter until the security situation is more stable.”
Although the inaugural trip was a success, the project was suspended following the terrorist attacks on the Bardo Museum in March and in Sousse in June.
“These terrorist acts deeply affected Tunisia, in terms of both political stability and economic development of the regions. Our project was conceived of as part of the economic development of marginalised regions,” Nefzi said. “The impact of these attacks delayed our project and could also endanger our foreign partnerships, which would be a great loss for eco-tourism and inter-cultural exchange between the south and north.”
Nefzi said he is hopeful about resuming the trips once the security situation improves.
“The trips originally planned for 2015 and 2016 were delayed to 2017. In the meantime, we hope that the security situation improves so we can resume trips in the fall of 2016 and resume taking bookings for 2017. Despite all of this, we are determined to be in operation for autumn 2016,” Nefzi said.