Sector vital to African country's economy finally showing signs of complete recovery, three years after a spate of devastating terrorist attacks
Tunisia's tourism industry starts to shine again
Wandering along the cobbled pathways, flanked by whitewashed, cubiform buildings, and jostling for space amongst the Sunday crowds, Tunisia's Sidi Bou Said is every inch the iconic Mediterranean village.
It’s an apt scene for a tourism industry finally showing signs of healthy recovery, three years after a spate of devastating terrorist attacks in 2015.
International arrivals into Tunisia rose about 29 per cent in the first nine months of last year over 2016 and recently-released government data shows they increased 16.9 per cent year on year to 6.3 million in the nine months to the end of September 2018, which surpassed the entire number for the whole of 2014 - the year before the attacks. Tourism revenues totalled over €1 billion (Dh4.25bn) in the first nine months this year, a rise of 27.6 per cent year-on-year.
However, in the months after the 2015 terrorist attacks, tourist numbers had dwindled precariously. Twenty-two people, mostly European tourists, were killed at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis in 2015, when three militants stormed the building and took hostages. That same year, 38 people were killed in a beach-side attack near the popular resort town of Sousse, and 12 were killed in the suicide bombing of a police bus in Tunis.
A devastating tourism dry spell followed for the country, which was already struggling in the wake of the Arab Spring.
This is the country, after all, that was once known as the “Bali for Brits” while European holidaymakers in search of a Mediterranean beach holiday needn’t look further than Sidi Bou Said for a taste of Greece, but with a far friendlier price tag.
An October 2018 report from the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) shows a 23.2 per cent increase in tourists to Tunisia from 2016 to 2017.
In 2010, tourist numbers in Tunisia were on an upward trajectory, with 7.8 million visitors that year. However, in the wake of the attacks, that number fell to 5.4m in 2015. Hotel guests almost halved in the country between 2012 and 2016, plummeting from just over 4 million, to 2.2 million in 2016.
But recent years have provided a glimmer of hope for the country. In 2017, tourist numbers were back up to 7.1 million, and they’re expected to surpass that this year.
“Tunisia, where the lifting of negative travel advice has led to a surge of European visitors the past months, recorded double-digit growth,” the UNWTO report said.
As we drive through Tunis, our driver is quick to explain how, pre-Arab Spring, the city was was a far cry from what it is today.
“Things were good before the Arab Spring … there were many tourists. Everyone is unhappy now,” says our driver.
The political climate remains tense, even now. A terrorist attack in Tunis on October 29, in which a woman blew herself up and injured nine people, knocked the country's recovery, but was described as an "isolated act" by the government.
Still, our driver is also adamant that the “Switzerland of Africa”, as he calls it (due to its political neutrality, he said), is seeing something of a renaissance as the tourists return.
On a weekend in September - what’s best described as the last dregs of peak season in other popular European summer destinations - the tourist hotspots are busy. Along with Egypt - two countries whose recent histories have been marred by political instability and terrorism - Tunisia has been touted as one of the fastest-growing tourist economies in the world.
It is a welcome change. Data from the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) underlines the devastating impact terrorist attacks had on the economy; in 2014, travel and tourism employed 230,500 people directly in the country, and 473,000 indirectly - accounting for 13.9 per cent of Tunisia's total employment. The industry was responsible for 15.2 per cent of growth domestic product, and the outlook was bright. Employment and economic growth were expected to rise by about 4 per cent the following year.
Instead, 2015 saw a mass loss of jobs in travel and tourism. That year, the sector employed 185,500 jobs directly and 400,000 indirectly, and accounted for 11.5 per cent of overall employment. Travel and tourism accounted for 12.6 per cent of GDP. The outlook for 2016 was negative across the board.
But 2016 defied the pessimism as most economic indicators clawed back out of the red. Total tourism contribution to GDP improved, as did employment figures. Slowly but surely, visitors were returning.
British tour operator Thomas Cook, which suspended its tours in the wake of the 2015 attacks, resumed them in February.
Earlier in the year, the UK’s Office for National Statistics revealed a 537 per cent year-on-year rise in visits to Tunisia for the first quarter of 2018.
And money is rolling back in to the coffers. WTTC data shows travel and tourism investment was 9.7 per cent of the total investment in the country last year, at $765 million - more than it was before the attacks.
The Residence by Cenizaro, a luxury hotel and resort chain based in Singapore, has had a Tunis outpost since 1996. The company operates just five luxury hotels across the world (its very first being in Tunis), and is continuing to invest heavily in Tunisia. The chain is currently focused on building three new international resorts - two of them in Tunisia.
The Residence Tunis resident manager Souad Harbaoui says after a “very difficult seven years”, now is a prime time to be investing in the country.
“We are a little country but we have big potential,” she says.
“We have a strategic position at the crossroads of the Mediterranean. Tunisia has been a strategic partner to most European countries, and [due to its] foreign policy, we are known to be peaceful and loving. Possibilities for investment are very high. We have the land, we have the human potential and the independence.”
The hotel is having a “great year” in 2018, she says, and says it reveals the first signs that tourism levels have completely recovered to pre-2015 levels.
Occupancy rates at The Residence had fallen to 42 per cent in the year of the attacks but have now climbed back to 65 per cent this year. The hotel changed its strategy to cater to business travellers immediately after the atrocities in order to survive. While Europe remains its largest market, it has seen an upswing in visitors from the Middle East.
“Last year was a mark of improvement, but this year was a really good year.
"We believe the future of our hotel can be bright,” Ms Harbaoui says.
And that optimism, it seems, is applicable nationwide.