Luring back visitors to Tunisia

04 January 2012

The immediate focus of Tunisia’s new tourism minister will be reviving the travel industry and restoring arrival numbers and revenues to 2010 levels

Key fact

Earnings from the tourism sector were down 33.7 per cent year-on-year as of 10 December 2011

Source: MEED

Beyond the package-tour resorts of Hammamet and the Cap Bon peninsula, Tunisia has much to offer the adventurous traveller. From the whitewashed buildings of Sidi Bou Said to the Roman ruins at El-Jem and the oasis town of Nefta with its 24 mosques, the country is as rich in tourism sites as its North African neighbours. But visitor numbers have plummeted since civil unrest broke out in Tunisia in December 2010 and which led President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee into exile several weeks later.

Reviving the industry is now a major priority for the new government that took office on 26 December

Although the revolution was swift and relatively bloodless compared with those that followed in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world, the tourism sector has yet to fully recover. Reviving the industry is now a major priority for the new government that took office on 26 December, following elections at the end of October.

Tourism market slump in Tunisia

For 2011 as a whole, arrival numbers were down 31.5 per cent. Last year, 4.6 million tourists and business travellers entered Tunisia, compared with 6.7 million in 2010. The total number of overnight hotel stays was 41 per cent lower and average hotel occupancy was just 32 per cent in 2011, compared with almost 52 per cent the year before. The country has around 190,000 hotel beds.

The man tasked with leading the sector’s recovery is Elyes Fakhfakh, the new tourism minister

In a typical year, Tunisia welcomes tourists and business travellers from all over the world, but the majority come from Europe and North Africa. In 2010, Europeans accounted for 55.8 per cent of total arrivals to the country, while North Africans represented 41.8 per cent. French, Germans, Italians and the British are generally the most populous European visitors, accounting for more than 55 per cent of overnight stays in an average year.

Arrivals from France represented 20 per cent of all visitors to Tunisia in 2010, outnumbered only by Libyans who accounted for 26 per cent that year. However, since most Libyan visitors rent villas and apartments, their contribution to the tourism sector is less significant. In 2010, Libyans accounted for little more than 1 per cent of overnight hotel stays in Tunisia and about 18 per cent of tourism earnings.

With the images of thousands of tourists clamouring to exit the country’s airports and ports when the protests first erupted still fresh in minds, along with the wider unrest in the Middle East and North Africa region, Europeans have put off travelling to Tunisia over the past 12 months.

Tunisia hotel occupancy* 
Tunis-Carthage coast4330.3
Tabarka-Ain Draham32.718.2
*=From 1 January until 10 December. Source: Tourism Ministry

The presence of tanks and razor wire outside key government buildings continues to reinforce those fears.

The number of French nationals entering Tunisia fell by 42 per cent in 2011 to 788,373, while European visitors as a whole dropped 44.3 per cent. Arrivals from Libya, meanwhile, were down 11 per cent at 1.6 million as a result of its civil war.

The fall in visitor numbers has had a detrimental impact on the Tunisian economy. As of 10 December, earnings from the tourism sector were down 33.7 per cent year-on-year at TD2.2bn ($1.46bn). In 2010, revenue from the tourism sector totalled TD3.5bn. The loss of income is only part of the problem.

The tourism industry is also a major employer in Tunisia, supporting some 400,000 jobs directly and indirectly. By June, it was estimated more than 3,000 jobs had been lost in the sector, and by the end of the year this figure had increased to 11,000, sources at the tourism ministry in Tunis tell MEED. The sector generates about 7 per cent of Tunisia’s gross domestic product.

Tourism chiefs say the 2011 Arab uprisings have hit the Tunisian travel industry far harder than the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, the April 2002 Al-Qaeda attack on a synagogue on the island of Djerba in the southeast of Tunisia, which left 20 dead, and the Iraq war that began in 2003.

In 2002, the total number of overnight stays dropped by 22 per cent, while the following year the figure fell by 2.3 per cent.

Leading the tourism recovery

The man tasked with leading the sector’s recovery this time around is Elyes Fakhfakh, the new tourism minister. The 39-year-old is a trained engineer, who began his career with French oil major Total, working on projects in Europe, Asia and the US. He later joined a Tunisian car component manufacturer owned by a conglomerate with interests in the hotel industry.

Tourist arrivals by origin, 2011
(Percentage of 4.6 million)
North African48.8
North American0.5
Source: Tourism Ministry

Fakhfakh is a member of the secular Ettakatol party, which forms part of the coalition government. Upon taking office in late December, Fakhfakh said his immediate priorities would be offering support to hotels that have sustained financial losses as a result of the revolution and are now threatened with closure, diversifying Tunisia’s tourism offering and ensuring the next summer season is a success.

Many hotels in the centre of Tunis were forced to shut for two months as protesters laid siege to the capital and surrounded government ministries. Providing financial support to those that are now struggling is seen as essential to preventing further job losses in the sector.

Several options have been suggested for how Tunisia could diversify its travel industry, including developing cultural and medical tourism, and establishing itself as a centre for Sahara-based travel and for the North African conference industry.

Tunisia tourism revenues
(TDm) 20102011
10 January52.855.5
10 February215.4152.4
10 March389.6230.8
10 April597.3331.4
10 May853.3439.0
10 June1,170.0571.5
10 July1,485.9726.3
10 August1,962.31,093.6
10 September2,388.01,406.3
10 October2,751.31,708.1
10 November3,102.72,004.7
10 December3,351.72,220.6
Source: Tourism Ministry

The historic events of 2011 also represent an opportunity for the tourism sector and the construction of a revolution tower and museum are ideas already being discussed.

The tourism ministry says marketing will be used to restore faith in Tunisia as a destination ahead of the peak summer season. Given the protracted economic slump in western Europe, industry insiders expect campaigns to focus on Eastern Europe and Russia.

Tunisia had been preparing to implement an open skies agreement with the EU from November 2011 that would allow European airlines, including low-cost carriers, free access to Tunisian airspace.

The move would have provided a major boost to the tourism sector with the arrival in particular, of the UK’s Easyjet and Ireland’s Ryanair. But the political turmoil brought about by the revolution prevented the agreement from going ahead. It is now not expected to be implemented before May 2012.

However, the delay will have been welcomed by Tunisia’s national carrier, which is not well placed at present to face off competition from European carriers.

Tunisair has seen passenger numbers fall over the past 12 months at a time when fuel costs have continued to rise.

In the nine months to the end of September 2011, the airline carried 2.4 million passengers, some 17 per cent fewer than the nearly 2.9 million passengers carried during the first three quarters of 2010. The company recorded a pre-tax loss of TD3.8m for 2010 due to rising operating costs and investment in new aircraft.

Fresh competition

Additional competition is on the way, however. The coming months will see the launch of two new local airlines: Freejet and Syphax Airlines. Freejet is due to launch low-cost charter services from Tunis in April for small and medium tour operators based in southern France, Italy, Scandanavia, Ukraine and Belarus. Syphax Airlines will operate out of the coastal town of Sfax and fly to France, Italy, Libya, Morocco and Turkey.

These launches should ensure that the Tunisian travel industry has a stronger performance in 2012 and they provide obvious marketing opportunities for the new tourism minister. He can also take comfort from the fact that the sector began to pick up in the second half of 2011; until mid-July the main indicators were down about 50 per cent.

With elections expected to be held again in 12-18 months, Fakhfakh’s focus will inevitably be short-term, concerned mostly with restoring arrival numbers and revenues to 2010 levels. Whoever follows him as minister will need to do more to address the broader challenges preventing the Tunisian tourism sector from achieving its potential, such as the country’s ageing transport network and worsening pollution levels.

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