Tunisians hope for tourist rebound

Reuters, Monday 21 Feb 2011

Hotels shuttered and 400,000 jobs at stake as tourism employees look to April-July peak season

Inside the walls of the medina market, a top draw in Tunisia's Hammamet seaside resort, Hafedh Alouini arranges his shop in hopes of a customer.

"I haven't made a sale in nearly three weeks," he says, as a handful of other souk sellers lean against the stone walls of the medina, smoking cigarettes and soaking up sun. "There are no tourists. We're just waiting."

Tunisia's tourism industry, the North African country's top foreign currency earner, has ground to a halt since a popular uprising last month forced President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee and touched off further revolts through the Arab world.

Thousands of tourists were evacuated from resort towns as protests reached a head, gutting the tourism sector by 40 per cent in January and leading the government to launch an advertising campaign to draw people back, dubbed, "I love Tunisia, the place to be...now!"

The dropoff is no small problem for Tunisia -- long a darling vacation destination thanks to its 875 miles (1,410 km) of Mediterranean coastline, its ancient Roman architecture and vast stretches of picturesque desert.

Tourism employs roughly 400,000 of the country's 10 million people, and brought in nearly US$2.5 billion in receipts last year -- more than 6 per cent of its gross national product.

Now, as Tunisia struggles to find its footing -- with sporadic demonstrations choking the capital and the interim government wrestling with a surge in crime -- the question Tunisians are asking is, "Will they return?" Tunisia's peak tourist months run from April to July.

The government is hopeful, and says charter flights from Europe started to resume over the weekend to the scenic town of Bizerte, just across the Mediterranean from Sicily and Sardinia.

Earlier this month, Tourism Minister Mehdi Houass said the popular overthrow of Ben Ali was "a good promotion" that could turn out being good for the sector.

"The revolution has made our country known to the whole world," he said. "We want to tell all our friends that they can come to Tunisia in a atmosphere of peace (and) freedom."

But ongoing demonstrations and worries about rising religious tension could be a setback, as could violence unfolding elsewhere in the Arab world, including in neighbouring Libya where scores of people have been shot dead.

"Security is everything," said Kate Davis, director of the Saphir Palace hotel in Hammamet -- one of more than a dozen giant whitewashed hotel buildings on the edge of the sea, but among just a few still operating.

"For people who are not here to see that it is calm and beautiful, the news about what is going on around the Arab world may be discouraging," she said. "On the other hand, I'm very optimistic that tourism will return in the coming months."

At the nearby Chich Khan hotel, another hotel owned by IBEROSTAR that has decided to keep its doors open in Hammamet, German tourist Susie Voege was checking in with her husband. "The security is fine, and we have this place to ourselves," she said. Dozens of other hotels stand empty.

In an analysts' call on North Africa in late January, Fitch Ratings cut its 2011 growth forecast for Tunisia to two per cent from five percent, saying tourism would be the sector hardest hit by the political unrest.

But it added that the economy could rebound next year if elections to replace Ben Ali pass smoothly. The interim government is expected to schedule a vote in July or August.

For Alouini, in the medina market, that sounds good. "For now, we're putting food on the table in whatever way we can," he said. "We have won our freedom, and there is no price you can put on that."

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