Foreign visitors may now be returning to the country after the Arab Spring and ISIL-claimed attacks, but many say the government is failing to make the most of the country's history
Tunisia's heritage sites stay empty, even as tourism picks up
Bulla Regia in north-west Tunisia is one of the country's most important archaeological sites.
Famous for its partially underground Roman houses, designed to protect their inhabitants from the heat, the ruins are also home to remarkably well-preserved Roman mosaics. Yet on the day Salah Massai and his wife, Jessica, visit Bulla Regia, they are the only people there.
"If this site was in Greece, you would see millions and millions of tourists coming here," says Salah, a 29-year-old Tunisian who lives in the nearby town of Jendouba.
Tunisia's tourism industry has been struggling to recover following the Arab Spring and ISIL-claimed attacks targeting tourists in 2015. But in recent months, the Tunisian press has been filled with headlines heralding the return of visitors to the country — even more so after the British foreign office last month removed Tunisia from its list of no-go countries, two years after 30 British holidaymakers and eight other foreigners were killed by a gunman in the resort of Port El Kantaoui, just north of Sousse.
Unfortunately for sites like Bulla Regia, however, Tunisia seems to be rushing back to its decades-old model of beach tourism, with heritage tourism remaining very much in the background.
Mahmoud, a guard working at Bulla Regia, says Salah and Jessica's experience was not unusual.
"For an entire week, I didn’t see any tourists," he says. This was in late July, the peak of the holiday season.
Tunisia is home to tens of thousands of archaeological sites, including four on the Unesco World Heritage list: Carthage, Dougga, El Jem and Kerkouane. But last month, Tunisian culture minister Mohamed Zine El Abidine told parliament that of the 30,000 heritage sites in the country, just 60 — or 0.2 per cent — were open to visitors.
Salah's wife, Jessica, a 22-year-old American, believes the government is not doing enough to promote even those sites that are open, like Bulla Regia.
"There is no proper advertising," she says. "The beaches and hotels are advertised more in Tunisia … I think the government is not putting the attention into it that it deserves."
"The US has a history, but nothing this old," she adds of Bulla Regia. "It’s fascinating."
At a forum in Tunis last month on the potential for increased economic ties between China and Tunisia, tourism minister Salma Elloumi Rekik said there was a huge Chinese market for heritage tourism that Tunisia should be tapping into.
"The Chinese tourists are not really attracted by the beaches. They are interested [in] culture, archaeological sites. We have to match their demand," she said.
Chinese tourism is ranked first worldwide in outbound travel, in terms of the number of people travelling and how much they spend. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, spending by Chinese tourists increased by 26 per cent in 2015 to US$292 billion (Dh1 trillion), while the number of outbound Chinese travellers rose by 10 per cent to 128 million. Yet only 7,400 Chinese tourists visited Tunisia in 2016.
"There is much more to see in Tunisia than 1,300 kilometres of beaches", Ms Elloumi Rekik told The National after the conference.
"We have thousands of years of history; archaeological sites dating back to Phoenician, Carthaginian, Roman, Byzantine times. This could allow us to welcome tourists all over the year, not only in the summer."
But other Tunisians say the necessary infrastructure to increase heritage tourism is not yet in place.
"Heritage has a big potential, but the problem is infrastructure. For example there is not enough transportation between the coastal, touristic places and the archaeological sites [in] the interior of the country," says Mohamed Ali Toumi, president of the Tunisian Federation of Travel Agencies.
Sami Belawid, a guard working at the Roman ruins of Makhtar, a three-hour drive from the coast, agrees.
"There is no hotel, no cafes … This is why tourists don’t come," says the 39-year-old, leaning on a monumental arch among the ruins as he oversees the work of five municipal employees who are weeding the site — with not a tourist anywhere to be seen.
Makhtar, in the centre of the country, is one of the biggest archaeological sites in Tunisia — a place so rich that it has not been fully excavated yet.
Sami says he would be willing to host visitors at his home for a small fee, since there is no formal accommodation for tourists.
"It’s the only solution, and I would be very happy about it," he says.But there are simply no visitors for him to host.
A music festival is to take place on the site a few days later, which Sami says "will liven up the place a bit", although most of the visitors are expected to be Tunisians.
Other archaeological sites are in an even worse situation than Makhtar.
The ruins of Acholla, near the coastal city of Sfax, around 250km south of the capital, has been more or less abandoned by the authorities. The site used to be one of the most spectacular examples of Roman mosaics in Africa. Now, shepherds graze their cattle in the vestiges of the site's amphitheatre, while its famous mosaics are covered with rubbish and weeds.
"The site was never open to the public," says Wided Ben Abdallah, a curator at the Regional Inspectorate of the Heritage Institute in Sfax.
"There are a lot things to see there though, but they are poorly preserved. Maybe one day we will be able to organise visits for tourists. But first, it is necessary to restore the site, and we’re not doing this right now."
In his office in Tunis, Faouzi Mahfoudh, director general of Tunisia's National Heritage Institute, which falls under the direction of the ministry of culture, acknowledges that many of the country's archaeological sites are not properly maintained.
"It is true there is wasted potential," he says. "But we don’t have, in Tunisia, the financial means to preserve all the sites we have."
"This is why we must draw priorities, and choose a few sites to maintain them. It’s our policy’.
Ali Khiri, a retired public servant who now dedicates his time to promoting and defending Tunisia's heritage as president of the Association of the Friends of Heritage, believes the government could be doing more, however.
‘Cultural tourism is profitable, while mass-market tourism is outdated," he says.
"In France, in Italy, most tourism receipts come from heritage tourism. I know it requires investments, but we could do the same."
He says the Tunisian authorities missed an opportunity to develop a new tourism model for the country after the Arab Spring and 2015 attacks brought the industry to its knees.
"It was an amazing opportunity," he adds. "But there is a lack of political will."