x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Tourism vital for recovery process

A Q&A with Roger Bismuth, a senator in the former Tunisian government and the owner of Groupe Bismuth, a major business conglomerate.

Roger Bismuth, a senator in the former Tunisian government and the owner of Groupe Bismuth, a major business conglomerate, said the country's first priorities following Mr Ben Ali's ousting in January should be to show its openness to the outside world and try to restart its vital tourism industry.

qWhat should businesses in Tunisia be focusing on this year?

a I think the first thing will be making sure that tourism starts up again. Tourism employs a lot of people for one thing, brings in money from other countries for another thing, and also creates collateral activities. Tourists, even if they're not very rich tourists, they always buy a little thing, a little knick-knack, a little souvenir, so that gives work to the artisan who made it. It's an activity that goes way beyond hotels and the beaches.

A lot of businesses shut down their factories during the protests and the revolution. Did you do that?

No, we didn't. Because I think that's not the image that you want to send out. You have to send out the opposite message. Each person has to act on his own convictions, and I think you have to set an example. There are people who still haven't resumed [production] today. That's not how you cope with the workforce or the country. It's necessary to scale back, but personally I always put the country first.

How has the revolution changed the business environment in Tunisia?

It hasn't changed it yet. It has only been two months [since Mr Ben Ali was forced out]. Right now, it hasn't changed the nature of business at all, but we're at a point of stasis. You can import, but import what? To sell to whom? There are a lot of factories that were destroyed, there were stocks of raw material that were destroyed. It has touched everyone.

How much have Tunisia's businesses lost in the destruction?

We still don't really know the statistics on the scale of the real destruction. That hasn't been published. We talk about a lot of losses, and we think some of them are a little exaggerated. We are establishing that there are businesses that have been burnt to the ground. But with some of the factories everything wasn't burnt, they've burnt only some raw materials.

What other obstacles do you see for businesses in the short term?

There were containers blocked at the port that belonged to the [former] ruling family and that were cleared out - I don't know how - and these products now are circulating in the market. All these products that were cleared out more or less illegally are preventing organised businesses from working normally. All the thefts, the supermarkets that were looted - these products are being sold in the streets everywhere. There are products that are worth 30 dinars that are being sold for three.

What should the new government do about the huge sway the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families [of the former president and his wife] held over the business community?

For now, because it is a provisional government it cannot take drastic measures. Afterward a judgment will come down to decide. But even despite their corruption, they created very big companies. They exist and they actually function, and I hope that they come back to the state to recoup part of that. They [the Ben Ali family] got their hands in practically the whole automobile sector, and the only ones that could escape were Citroen and Volvo. I think two [other] people who own [those dealerships], who I know well, didn't sleep any more. They took everything. Everything.

Do you think there will be a programme of nationalisation where the government takes over companies owned by the Ben Alis?

I don't know if [the provisional government's] prerogative permits them to nationalise. This new government wants to give an image of absolute propriety. Normally there would have to be a nationalisation, and you would send out tenders and everything would be transparent, et cetera. This would be an excellent thing. That would bring back for the state and replace the money that this family stole without a single reservation.

How long will it take for things to get back to normal?

More like three years than two. I think that it's unreasonable to think otherwise. That's why I say today each person must find what will be the shortest way back possible. That comes before the tourists regain confidence, before doing this, before doing that. The hotels have been closed now for two months. It's already a hollow period. We are vulnerable, and we have to find new investors. When a supermarket or store is burnt down, for the owner, that's all his fortune, that supermarket. That's lost. How is he going to succeed? What aid can you bring? What steps can you take to reconstruct? It would take almost a miracle to get back to normal. There are people who need so much. How to help them?