"Our view of tourists has changed," muses Mohammed Tayib in the medina in Tunis, stacking the chairs he puts out to invite passers-by to sit. "Before there were a lot; now there are a few, so we deal with them like precious things. You know the value of clients."
It is the end of another day in the Tunisian capital, and the shops of the medina are closing as dusk falls. Shopkeepers draw the shutters halfway on their stores, pausing to invite the final passing tourists to view their merchandise. Among the colourful traditional clothes of one, Tayib, 34, who has been selling his wares for more than a decade, is discussing the decline in tourism following the Tunisian revolution at the start of this year.
It is a serious problem for shopkeepers like Tayib, who rely on tourism for their income. "Our customers are only tourists and there are none," he says, surveying the lanes of the medina. Before, Tayib could expect at least 10 to 12 paying clients per day. Now: "Nothing. They look around and take photos."
Yet the reduction in tourist numbers is an opportunity for those travellers still coming to Tunisia: the crowds have gone and prices have dropped. The political situation stabilised soon after the revolution and, although there have been political demonstrations and this week a reinstated night-time curfew from 10pm to 6am in and around Tunis, foreign governments including the UK and the US have not advised against travel to the capital.
The so-called Jasmine Revolution that ousted Tunisia's long-time president, Zine Al Abedine Ben Ali, in January has visibly had a detrimental effect on Tunisia's tourism. According to the United Nations' World Tourism Organisation, the number of tourists visiting Tunisia dropped by 44 per cent in the first three months of this year.
It's little wonder that the political unrest had a severe impact on holidaymakers' plans, with foreign powers first warning their citizens to stay away and then organising mass evacuations as protests increased. The turmoil has died down and those warnings have been rescinded, but the fear still remains.
Speaking to reporters soon after the revolution, Mehdi Houas, the country’s minister of tourism, put a brave face on the industry’s recovery prospects, saying he hoped the overthrow of Ben Ali would be “a good promotion” for the country. “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 an atmosphere of peace [and] freedom.”
Those who are prepared to travel to Tunisia now will be rewarded with unhurried service and significant savings. Rooms at signature hotels in Tunis, such as Dar El Medina, or the spectacular Villa Didon in Carthage, have been discounted by up to 15 per cent compared with prices at the start of the year.
The walk from Bab Bhar, the imposing arch that dominates the entrance to the seventh-century medina, where clothes, leather goods and other tourist memorabilia are sold, up the winding lanes of the old town towards the Zeytouna mosque, the most spectacular mosque in the city, whose foundations date to the eighth century, is hassle-free. The many shopowners have always relished bargaining. Now they have a new phrase, both an enticement and an admission: “I’ll give you the best price,” they wink, “because there are no customers.”
These sellers are keen to sell, naturally, but also happy to talk. There is none of the hardsell found in other North African destinations such as Marrakech and more opportunity for casual conversations with locals that make such trips so worthwhile.
The medina itself is a listed World Heritage Site, and it is not hard to see why. Although it is a living part of the city, the changes follow the styles of the past – look closely and there are elements that tell the history of its history: images of Carthaginian goddesses of fertility sit easily with the star of David. Even the spectacularly varied doors to private homes are ornately decorated.
Near the Zeytouna mosque, where non-Muslims are welcome to view the courtyard if not to go inside, on a street lined with cafes, is Dar El Medina, one of the finest converted houses in the city. The imposing door is shut and after we knock for some time, a man ushers us in, past an empty restaurant. Dar El Medina is a boutique hotel with just 12 rooms, only six of which were occupied when I visited. All are different, a careful match of functionality and old Tunisian charm, as befits a place in the very heart of the old quarter. From the terrace there are views across the medina, over the rooftops of houses and shops, far into the distance.
It’s clearly used to welcoming wealthy visitors. The receptionist tells a similar story to others: a fall in guest numbers directly after the revolution and a slow climb back. The hotel hasn’t officially reduced its prices, but is offering guests a 15 per cent discount, equivalent to a daily saving of US$39 (Dh143) on a large double room for $260 (Dh955).
Dar El Medina’s restaurant isn’t serving yet, even though it is past lunch time and a few doors down another restaurant is similarly shuttered. Eventually, a waiter appears, saying apologetically that the staff had been taking a break, and ushers us in, where we have the restaurant to ourselves. Alone in an ancient courtyard, with light streaming in from the open roof, it’s even easier to see an upside to a post-revolution Tunis.
Tunis is a city with several villages as suburbs, the best known of which is Carthage, site of the ancient city-state. From the eerily empty Carthage National Museum, set on a high hill overlooking the surrounding areas, the Gulf of Tunis spreads out. Further north, all along the arc of the Gulf, are rich, leafy suburbs that provide the real playground for Tunis’s wealthy. The coastlines of La Marsa and Gammarth are filled with elegant villas and expensive restaurants, packed at the weekend with Tunisians, a world away from revolutions.
The most visited of these suburbs by tourists is Sidi Bou Said, a small, busy village of whitewashed buildings dotted with pretty blue-painted windows, a postcard-perfect example of Tunisian village life. Tourists come in for a few hours from Tunis or from the uber-resort city of Hammamet, traipsing up the narrow road that leads to the mosque of Sidi Bou Said, a 13th-century Sufi saint.
Here, the lack of tourists is also keenly felt. “Of course it’s bad,” says Naguib Husni, a salesman in a souvenir shop who has worked in Sidi Bou Said for five years, shaking his head. He points down the cobbled street: “Before, all of this is full of people after lunch. Big groups, French, Italians, maybe 30 or 40 people at one time. “Now, you see how quiet.”
There are still tourists walking among the shops, but they are individuals, families or couples. The large tour groups Husni used to see have not arrived.
At the top of the village there is a winding path that leads steeply down to the marina and the beach. Dieter Hoffmann and his wife, Marie, a couple in their mid-40s from Hannover in Germany, are deciding whether to try to find a beach before dinner. “We thought there would be few people so we came now,” says Hoffmann. “For us it is nice when it is quiet like this. We get to enjoy everything just for ourselves.”
The couple, who are travelling independently and are on their first visit to the country, say they felt much safer than in Morocco, another North African tourist destination. “We’ve never felt in danger, of course not. Friends told us it was dangerous but really, it is not. Only you see the army in the city, but really it is nothing.”
It is this perception rather than any reality that has most affected tourism, according to Ffion Davies of the Tunisian National Tourist office in London. “When I took a group of journalists to Djerba in March, [half] said they did have reservations about security, but all those worries were completely dispelled. That’s our main job, to dispel those worries, to show that security isn’t an issue for tourists.”
“The situation hasn’t changed on the ground,” says Davies, explaining that while protests were raging in Tunis, outside the resorts were calm. “Even during the revolution, the tourist resorts weren’t affected. But it’s the fear people have.” Davies says the office has had no reports of safety or security issues involving tourists.
In the weeks following the revolution, Tunisian tourism officials called on suppliers not to reduce prices to entice visitors, arguing a cut would be harder to reverse later. Major tour operators like Thomas Cook called that request “a difficult ask for summer 2011”. Tour operators are only now, months later, gradually filling their books with the usual package-tourist crowd.
“Tour operators are still testing the waters,” says Davies. “We’re getting back on track to where we were last year, but we’re not there yet.”
For Davies, attracting tourists is vital for Tunisia’s return to normality. “Tourism is such a huge part of the Tunisian economy. They really value the visitors.”
I head back into the medina, walking down Habib Bourghiba Avenue where the nightly gathering of strangers to discuss politics is beginning. Every evening since President Ben Ali fled, dozens of strangers have been gathering to talk about public events – wide-ranging, passionate discussions that were unthinkable just a few weeks ago.
So much has changed in this small country in the space of a few months, and it can evoke such contradictory feelings. Walking through the talking crowds, I admire what Tunisians have achieved and wish their country a swift return to prosperity. Yet in the medina, I can’t help feeling guilty, pleased to have so much space to myself, away from the usual crowds. The place has a subdued feel, like a sweet shop when all the children are in school. I feel in a rush to experience the calm before everyone returns.
If you go
Return flights with Emirates (www.emirates.com) from Dubai to Tunis cost from Dh3,325, including taxes
Double rooms at Dar El Medina (www.darelmedina.com), a 19th-century house converted into a luxury hotel, cost from US$205 (Dh750) per night. Outside Tunis, by the coast in Carthage, is the luxurious Villa Didon (www.villadidoncarthage.com). Double rooms cost from $320 (Dh1,175) per night, rising to $650 (Dh2,390) for a senior suite. Prices include taxes