Tunisia's economy is faltering and its politics unstable following the 2011 uprising. But, as Colin Randall discovers, that should not necessarily put tourists off.
Time for tourists to return to Tunisia
There is a hint of mischief in Hussein's eyes that shows the spirit of rebellion can stretch beyond the clamour for political change to the everyday needs of the traveller. As my driver on the first morning of a brief stay in his country, he has his instructions. An onward flight to the south, where the Sahara awaits, is scheduled for the afternoon; in between times, I'm supposed to be shown a hotel's thalassotherapy centre and a golf course.
Yet we are only a 25-minute drive from the ancient city of Carthage that bursts with a history reflecting its rule for various periods by Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Turks and the French.
Hussein sympathises; off we go instead to Carthage for a peek at the outstandingly preserved ruins of Roman baths in the shadow of the presidential palace and a visit to a museum, where I fall into lively conversation with a group of Tunisian students. There is also an attractive-looking beach stretching as far as the eye can see but, this being winter, the weather is warm but not enough for sunbathing, and the sands are deserted.
It's hardly the most audacious defiance of authority witnessed in a land where popular discontent inspired not only domestic revolution but the Arab Spring. But in its own way, Hussein's cheerful acquiescence in my spot of truancy, and the consequence of enjoyable stolen time in Carthage and neighbouring Sidi Bou Said, helps me decide Tunisia is a country I could fall in love with.
Sidi Bou Said is especially impressive this morning. Pretty and distinctive with uniformly blue and white painted buildings, it can also be reached easily and cheaply by train from Tunis. Like Carthage, it is now regarded as a suburb of the capital and is a reliable magnet for city dwellers and foreign visitors alike.
In Sidi Bou Said's narrow winding streets, there are charming little shops selling objects crafted with Bedouin and Touareg skill. The Cafe des Nattes, also known as Kahoua El Alia, boasts glorious views of the Gulf of Tunis from the terrace.
I return here a few days later before my flight home. By then, I've seen a lot more of the country. Invited to join a group of 23 Tunis-based ambassadors and charges d'affaires for a fleeting tour of the inland south, I'm spared such coastal resorts as Sousse, Monastir and Djerba. These and others are the locations, long frequented by hordes of foreigners, that have suffered most dramatically. Social turmoil - hardly helped by recent events including the assassination of the opposition leader Chokri Belai - has threatened to bring tourism to its knees. The future of the industry will ultimately be judged on the strength of the recovery of package holidays, although official figures suggest this is under way. However, it is pointless to go out of season and gawp at empty beaches. The plan should be to see more out-of-the-way sites, especially in and around the Sahara.
For a fleeting visit, this requires an internal flight south from Tunis. It is worth the fare for the stunning change of landscape after the lush green and jasmine scents of the northern coastline. Given more time, a hired 4x4 may also appeal, but it is a long drive.
In Douz, an oasis town known as the gateway to the desert, we stop at a boisterous Saharan festival where expert camel riders and horsemen parade their skills before the eyes of the diplomats seated high in the tribune.
A clear highlight is the spectacle of waif-like children as young as 10, who, neat in gold and black costumes, are pounding a tight circle on horseback. The braver ones among them also pull on blindfolds and writhe precariously in and out of their saddles without ever looking like falling. A visiting television crew from neighbouring Algeria waits patiently to whisk the more accomplished off for interviews afterwards.
There is ample time to wander among the spectators, who are mostly locals but include a few Tunisians who have travelled some distance. Most are happy to chat. An amiable children's activities organiser, Mohammed ben Mostahad, 42, tells me of his exhilaration at the changes afoot in the country since the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was finally driven from power on January 14, 2011. Smiling at his four-year-old daughter, Tuba, he says: "The hope has to be for the future of her and her friends but, up to now, it is for me about expecting much better behaviour than we were used to from those in positions of authority."
This is an interesting comment, given the revolt's origins in the suicide of a young fruitseller who set himself on fire in a protest against corruption when his stock was seized, after he had failed to pay bribes to local officials. But belief in the revolution is far from universal; a young couple who are shopkeepers in Tunis think it has not brought any improvement. They are attending the festival after a seven-hour slog by road with their small child.
In international media there has been plenty of talk of trouble on the streets. But there is little evidence of greater danger here than in a host of other countries. Certainly, I felt safe wherever I went, in Tunis and smaller towns as well as the desert. The Canadian ambassador, Sebastien Beaulieu, baby strapped to his chest as we admire the waterfall at Tamerza, Tunisia's biggest mountain oasis, agrees. "We do advise nationals to avoid demonstrations that can turn violent," he says while adding that broadly similar common sense applies to travel in other countries. Some visitors have been caught up in the tense aftermath of regime change. A short burst of rioting in the resort of La Marsa prompted fears that extremism would drive people away. A French-Tunisian tourist was beaten up in Bizerte by a mob angry at the light clothing of his wife and daughter. But these are isolated stains on the overwhelmingly serene character of a modern, largely tolerant nation. Elyes Fakhfakh, who accompanied the ambassadors' tour as tourism minister (although he has since been promoted to finance minister) deplores the portrayal of Tunisia "as if it is Afghanistan".
The current charm offensive is intended to persuade holidaymakers to return. Seven million visitors came in 2010, but the figure fell to fewer than five million the next year.
The good news, according to Mr Fakhfakh, is that they are returning; 2012 ended with a respectable recovery to six million. If the authorities keep their nerve and frustrate the extremist minority's wishes to impose a less tolerant atmosphere, the improvement should continue provided - and it is a big provided - renewed calm replaces Tunisia's unwanted recent newsworthiness.
France, Germany, the UK and Russia remain the biggest markets, and Gulf countries as yet provide few of these tourists. "We see only about 40,000 from all the region's countries combined," the minister says. "There is enormous potential for us in the Middle East but we must work harder to ensure there are the facilities - especially for shopping, including malls - that people expect."
I could not help but think back to Hussein, thalassotherapy and golf as he spoke. It is the availability of such attractions that Tunisia feels the need to stress as it rebuilds and remarkets its appeal. What matters more to me is that wherever I go, I encounter friendliness. Ordinary people are willing to stop and speak. A young presenter manning the public address system at a date festival switches instantly from Arabic to the neutral language of English when he sees our group, with its many non-Arab faces, approaching. Arabic is the official language but almost everyone speaks French and younger Tunisians, in particular, make an effort with English. "It's happy hour," says a stallholder in Tozeur, trimming the price for a pair of ceramic candleholders from 25 to 22 dinars (Dh52) Locals reproach me for not holding out for a bigger reduction.
In the beautiful heart of Tunis, it is possible to walk through the medina without being accosted by aggressive street traders and shopkeepers commonly found, say, in Morocco. At the entrance to this bustling commercial district is a magnificent corner building on the site that served as the British consulate or embassy for more than three centuries. Tahar Montathel, the owner of the site - which includes a ground-floor cafe - tells me he plans to reopen it as the Royal Victoria hotel this year.
Even the medina - where some of the shops and restaurants might have been plucked from the Tunisian quarter of Marseille - gives an impression that the pace of life is relaxed. The Maghreb is not unfamiliar territory; I have visited Libya and Algeria as a reporter, Morocco as a holidaymaker. On the strength of this first encounter with Tunisia, I know the one to which I would most gladly return.
Follow us @LifeNationalUAE