Bargains tempt some wary tourists to Egypt and Tunisia

Reuters, Saturday 4 Jun 2011

North Africa tourism makes a slow return to normal as discount deals from hotels and travel agents attract a trickle of visitors

Tourists at Saqqara
Tourists at Saqqara, a site whose newly-unveiled tombs aim to draw visitors back (Photo: Reuters)

The tanks parked beside Tunisia's tourism ministry and the capital's main souk were probably not quite what travel agents had in mind when they said better security was the way to tempt back holiday makers.

Four months after a popular uprising toppled Tunisia's ruler, the country is slowly trying to restore stability, choose a new government and rebuild its economy with a focus on its tourism sector, the country's biggest employer after farming.

But with foreign arrivals down 50 per cent as it enters the summer season, post-revolution Tunisia is not seeing the kind of support it would like from Europe - namely the usual flow of thousands of tourists from France, Spain and Germany.

"Tunisians feel very let down because they were the first ones to start the uprising, to fight for democracy, and now they are forgotten," said tour group manager Can Deniz, strolling through the winding streets of Sidi Bou Said village.

Deniz is with the only foreign group in the village, which usually draws hundreds of tourists daily for its beautiful views over the Bay of Tunis, white and blue houses and lively market.

However, the people he is browsing the souk with are not tourists but other tour guides. They are on a trip sponsored by the Tunisian tourism board and national airline in an attempt to show the country is safe and worth offering to customers again.

Tourism usually contributes 6-7 per cent of gross domestic product and the sector is an important provider of temporary work in Tunisia where 14 per cent are unemployed -- one of the major factors behind the revolution.

Deniz said agents were targeting couples with upmarket, last minute trips sold on the cheap, such as a week in a five star coastal hotel for 200 British pounds ($322), or half price.

"People are being drawn by price rather than any real interest in the country," he said sadly.

Visits may be down by half, but some are still coming to the North African country -- 252,000 in March -- despite the military presence, occasional curfews, taxi strikes blocking the main road to the airport and war over the border in Libya.

In the capital's Bardo Museum, home to Roman mosaics and statues, 26-year-old banker Francois-Xavier Marchand from Paris is taking a few days to explore Tunis ahead of work meetings.

"My company has an office in Tunis, so I know people here and took advice before travelling. I am not scared but it is fair to say that I am not going for strolls in the centre," he said, admitting he would not have come if it wasn't for work.

An hour's drive away in the coastal town of Hammamet, hoteliers fill rooms by slashing prices by 20-30 per cent.

In the luxury hotel El Mouradi, where occupancy is half its normal levels in May, you can find bargain-hunters and seasoned travellers relaxing under parasols by the pool.

"You can see the evidence that people are scared," said Frenchman Alain Barret, gesturing at the empty pool and vacant deckchairs surrounding him and his wife Francoise, who are on their third holiday in Hammamet.

"After all the efforts the Tunisians have made, now people are worried about its proximity to Libya. A terrible sadness has descended on this place," he said.

But the couple say they feel far enough away from Tunisia's problems to enjoy themselves, even if market merchants are more aggressive as they desperately compete for customers.

"We are here really to enjoy ourselves, for purely selfish reasons," Francoise said, dangling a henna-tattooed arm over the side of her deck chair.

In Egypt, where protestors inspired by the Tunisians ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February, the number of tourists visiting the following month dropped 60 per cent to 535,000 from 1.3 million a year earlier. Russians in particular stayed away.

But some tour operators say they expect Egypt to recover faster than Tunisia thanks to its more predictable climate and its major tourist attractions such as the pyramids.

Only three months ago, Tahrir Square was the epicentre of protests that routed Mubarak -- dubbed a modern-day pharaoh by many Egyptians -- but for tourists passing through the square now, those momentous events are not much of a draw.

"The revolution hasn't really been a big thing for us, other than the fact it's enabled us to get really good prices everywhere," said British backpacker Tina Winn, 31 who had been able to stay in four star hotels at hostel room rates.

"Cairo for us was about the pyramids and shopping."

Tourism is Egypt's top foreign currency earner, generating over a tenth of gross domestic product. As in Tunisia, it is a major employer -- providing one in eight jobs in a country also beset with high unemployment.

In the narrow alleys of Khan el-Khalili souk, once a hive of tourists, 31-year-old Khaled Mahmoud works in a shop selling sequinned belly-dancer outfits. He said the revolution had shaken his business and he was struggling to make ends meet.

He used to make around LE40,000 (US$6,720) per month before the revolution, selling the sparkly designs to tourists. Now he is lucky to scrape together LE2,000.

Picking out one beaded costume, he said he used to be able to sell it for LE350, but now he is willing to part with it for 250, for only a sliver of profit.

Tourists delivered by bus from sea resort Sharm el-Sheikh for a day-trip to Cairo were largely indifferent to the revolution. Many of them had booked holidays before the unrest, though some had leapt at the opportunity of a discount getaway.

"We're on our honeymoon, so we wanted somewhere that was warm this time of year," said Steve Collins, adding that he and his wife felt completely safe, having checked government travel advice before booking the holiday.

The British couple were sheltering from the sun by the entrance to the Egyptian Museum, just metres away from the blackened husk of Egypt's former ruling party headquarters, torched by protestors two weeks before Mubarak's fall.

"Apart from that burnt-out building there's not much evidence of the revolution left really," Collins said.

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