Confidence returns to Tunisia

By | Category: Travel destinations

Cafe Sidi Chebaane is Sidi Bousaid – a popular cafe for tourists to go for the view

Last week the 24th Marché International du Tourisme (MIT) opened in the Tunisian capital, Tunis. The importance of this tourism show cannot be underestimated this year because it is the first one to be held since the British government decided to lift the ban on tourists travelling to the country.

Before the events of 2015, over 400,000 Britons used to holiday in Tunisia each year; some even have second homes there. Britons were greatly missed and hotels and tourist attractions suffered. Now that Thomas Cook, TUI and other tour operators have added flights and started selling the country again this was my first opportunity to talk to tourist suppliers to see how confident they were and what offers would be made to attract us to holiday there again.

MIT is not just one show. It combines a boat show with a golf and sport show as well as a spa, hydrotherapy and medical tourism show so I should be able to get a widespread view of the confidence levels in 2018. Yet there weren’t many British tour operators wandering around seeking accommodation deals or agreements on excursions. One reason may have been that tour operators have been visited by Tunisian companies seeking arrangements for 2019.

Last year and the year before when I had been in Tunisia, confidence had been low and optimism on a similar level. Britons were eagerly welcomed when they did flout the ban but the numbers were small – only about 8,000. One airport near Hammamet, Enfidha-Hammamet International Airport, saw the number of passengers drop by three quarters and that drop was largely due to Britons not arriving. This year it is different. The airport is hoping for a big increase in passengers.

the cranes are back working as buildings are refurbished or new ones built

That confidence is returning can be seen in the number or working cranes you can quickly see. On the outskirts of Tunis there will twelve working on developments to the south of the city and in Hammamet an equal number working on hotel refurbishments and new buildings. There are 145 hotels, give or take a few, and were it not for an influx of Algerian tourists last year they would have been closures. Now there is talk of new hotels to house all the Britons that will arrive.

The older hotels which might have been five star a few years ago may not have been maintained as well as people would like but that was due to their being no income so why spend money? UK tour operators may now rand them at a lower star rating until refurbishments take place but that won’t be long in coming. At M.I. T. there were hotel chains telling me that were investing in new projects after having deferred projects over the last few years.

But change can take time and no greater evidence is needed than in the cruise industry. Before the attack on the Bardo Museum, some 900,000 cruise passengers would land in Tunis ready to be whisked away on nearby excursions. Today the figure is half that largely due to the way in which cruise companies market their business.

La Goulette awaits the arrival of cruise ships…

They sell the same cruise in many countries so to lose one country’s passengers (those from the UK) meant that Tunis was dropped from all programmes. In 2010, the cruise terminal in Tunis – La Goulette –  once saw six cruise ships dock in one single, very hectic day. Today, the first cruise ship of the year will dock in late April. Since cruise itineraries are decided upon so far in advance there is little hope for much of an increase this year or even 2019 because those cruises are on sale now. Cunard, for example, announces its cruise programme from November 2019 to June 2020 tomorrow. But from 2020 onwards, cruise passengers could once again flock to Tunis.

…but the marina is at 98% capacity showing that the boating fraternity kept faith during the downturn as most boats are owned by non-Tunisians…

Security has been at the heart of the delay in resuming flights from the UK to Tunisia. Now you will see heightened security as hotels have metal detectors and x-ray searches for all incoming guests and that includes frequent entries to the hotel not just the first time. There are soldiers and police patrolling tourist areas and some up market shopping malls have security as well. To get into the cruise terminal in La Goulette and Port Yasmine in Hammamet (a 750 berth marina) you will pass through a number of security checkpoints. Even smaller marinas can have guards. Last year I was stopped by a security guard in Sousse as I walked along a beach and returned to a hotel complex. My identity was checked with hotel reception to see whether I really was staying there. This year that security is more widespread. I can’t say that it is 100% safe but it is sfaer than it certainly once was.

Yasmine, just north of Hammamet, is a tourist hotspot having the marina I mentioned, a sandy beach, entertainment, theme parks and restaurants, casinos a medina (old area) and any number of souvenir shops selling Tunisian dress, ceramics, wooden items, metal and leather work. Signage still includes English despite the fact that tourism in Yasmine has been kept going by Algerian tourists. It is the Brits that are wanted back and, for the first time in years, the shopkeepers and attractions think that will happen. Before it was a rather lacklustre answer about when the British would return. Now they are more positive.

and in Carthage land – a family attraction in Yasmine – the arrival of Britons is awaited

The same attitude seems to be held by the golf courses. I visited the same three that I saw last year. Then they mentioned that golf membership numbers had dropped (in one case from 2,000 memberships to just 300) and that dropped was blamed on there being fewer Britons. The number of visitors booking rounds dropped as well but now, each told me that they were seeing more golfers.

Britons only began arriving in larger numbers a few weeks ago and that has stimulated the confidence that numbers will return to the half million that used to come each year. Compared to Spain or even Egypt, there are few Britons that own holiday homes here. In the old days, those over 65 came for two or three months in the winter because it was cheaper to live in Tunisia, the weather was better and there was so much to do. The confidence is that those people will return as well.

At present, holidays to Tunisia will be good value. As time passes and more Brits come that may not always be the case. The time to travel to Tunisia is now.

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