x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Tunisia plans a tourism revolution

Tunisia's new leaders vow to woo back visitors by promoting historic sites long sidelined by a tourism industry geared towards sun, sand and surf.

Tourists listen to a guide at the archaeological site of Carthage, near Tunis. In addition to the ruins of the ancient city, Tunisia boasts Kairouan, which is considered one of Islam's holiest cities.
Tourists listen to a guide at the archaeological site of Carthage, near Tunis. In addition to the ruins of the ancient city, Tunisia boasts Kairouan, which is considered one of Islam's holiest cities.

CARTHAGE, TUNISIA // It was Friday afternoon on Byrsa Hill, and as usual, a tour guide named Kalthoum Aouini was waiting by the museum, hoping for visitors.

"Since the revolution, and with the global crisis, numbers have fallen," said Ms Aouini, wearing spectacles and a leather jacket. "We've lost a lot of nationalities."

The revolution that toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January also frightened off tourists, with tourism earnings in 2011 plummeting by 40 per cent from last year.

Now Tunisia's new leaders are vowing to woo back visitors by promoting historic sites long sidelined by a tourism industry geared towards sun, sand and surf. There is great potential, but much work is needed to promote it.

"Our approach is to develop and build on the strengths of each city or region, especially in deprived areas," said Said Ferjani, a senior member of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, which will head a new government after last month's elections.

Tunisia boasts sites from the ruins near Tunis of ancient Carthage, where Ms Aouini works, to Kairouan, considered one of Islam's holiest cities.

However, years of catering to package beach holidays has benefited coastal resort towns at the expense of interior regions, said Taher Ghalia, the curator of the Bardo antiquities museum and head of museum development for the National Heritage Institute.

A decade ago Mr Ghalia, an archaeologist, excavated a Roman villa at Oued Errmel, south-east of Tunis, with plans to attract tourists. Today the site remains unvisited.

"I wanted to make the olive presses work as they did in antiquity," he said. "The local village could live from that site."

New infrastructure and stronger local management are needed for such sites to flourish, Mr Ghalia said. "We've inherited a very centralised structure."

Within that structure are established tour operators that set industry standards, said Sami Harize, a private guide and teacher at the Sidi Dhrif Institute of Higher Tourism Studies, Tunisia's top state tourism school.

"There are strong monopolies," he said. "For me, a revolution in Tunisian tourism would start with an open-sky agreement."

Tunisia's airspace is effectively closed by tariffs on European budget airlines, whose cheap flights have boosted tourism in countries such as Morocco, Tunisia's North African peer.

That in turn poses challenges for guides such as Ms Aouini, whose income depends partly on casual visitors.

Ms Aouini was pursuing archaeology studies when the death of her father forced her to seek employment. In 2003 she began guiding at Carthage.

Three millennia ago, legend holds, the Phoenician princess Elissa appropriated Byrsa Hill from tribesmen who offered as much land as an ox-hide encompassed. She encircled the hilltop with thin strips of hide, founding the city that built the Carthaginian empire.

Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottomans and France ruled Tunisia in later centuries. Today a French-built cathedral on Byrsa Hill overlooks the Punic harbour, a patch of water glinting between the houses of modern Carthage.

While Carthage has received Unesco and World Bank funding, Mr Ghalia said that it needed a further €50 million (Dh250m) to be fully developed.

"Most of our visitors are curious about history," Ms Aouini said. "Even if there's not much time, I try to give people a general idea."

She spotted five tourists near some Roman columns and offered her services. The group opted to admire the view from a stone bench.

"Tunisians seem to be starting to be proud of their archaeology," said Emma Taaks, a visiting psychotherapist from Zurich seated beside her husband Dieter Hauser, a psychologist. "Their self-worth is growing."

January's revolution unleashed a torrent of free speech from Tunisians long cowed by Mr Ben Ali's security apparatus.

"Now, people in restaurants and taxis speak to us," said Mr Hauser. "A Tunisian friend even invited us home for Eid."

The couple began visiting Tunisia four years ago after Mrs Taaks was diagnosed with cancer.

"There is an enemy in my blood, and one day it will kill me," she said. "I regret to go. I want more time to see places like this and tell my grandchildren about the world."

Such "archaeological tourism" can be linked with existing seaside infrastructure, said Mr Ghalia, from the National Heritage Institute.

An example of that appeared on Byrsa Hill on Friday: a coach-load of elderly tourists from a cruise ship out of Southampton in the United Kingdom.

It was Remembrance Day in Britain and some wore red paper poppies. Striding beside them was Mr Harize.

"We're obliged to keep it simple," Mr Harize said. "Twenty minutes is not sufficient, but this is dictated by the tour operator."

Nearby, Ms Aouini snagged three visitors in African dress. A few minutes later Mr Harize's group reboarded their coach.

"I studied the ancient world, especially Carthage," said Velma Krever, a retired special-needs teacher.

Twenty-three years ago Mrs Krever and five friends hired a young scholar to teach them about antiquity.

"First Herodotus, then the Punic Wars, then Greece and Rome," she said.

Two years ago Mrs Krever's tutor moved away with his wife and two cats, Heracles and Ulysses. Her passion for history remained.

The coach stopped at the Antonine Baths, completed in the 2nd century. Mrs Krever moved slowly through a palm grove, leaning on her cane.

Suddenly the trees cleared on a field of honey-coloured foundations laid out before the sea.

"Oh!" Mrs Krever said. "Isn't this beautiful!"

jthorne@thenational.ae