Awaiting the Britons

By | Category: Travel destinations

Since 2015, Tunisia has weathered a tourism malaise. After the terrorist attacks at both the Bardo museum and at Port El Kantaoui, tourism from the UK fell away. As a regular visitor very year since that attack, I saw hotels that closed down and began to decay through lack of m aintenance, unemployment rose and businesses with a heavy tourist reliance like cafes and restaurants withered.

taking a short cut – straight over the dunes!

Last year the UK government lifted the advice not to travel to most of Tunisia and the relief in tourist circles was palpable.

I have been visiting many of  the main UK tourist destinations in the country each year since 2015 courtesy of the Tunisian National Tourist Board and the change in the last few years to this February was very noticeable.

Take the airport in Tunis for example.  Two years ago, virtually the only airline you saw was Tunis Air and its sidekick, Tunisair Express which travelled on internal routes. there are still some Tunisiar jets parked on the skirt awaiting re-use.

This year I spotted planes from Air Algerie, Air France, Emirates, Lufthansa, Nouvelair, (a Tunisian airline) Qatar Airlines, Transavia and Turkish Airlines there. TUI and Thomas Cook will be joining them this summer.

Tins carthage Airport is seeing pkanes from many countries again

Enfidha is the airport for most British flights to Sousse, Monastir and Hammamet. Prior to 2015 it was busy. In the intervening years there was hardly a plane and I was told that, at one stage, there was just one Russian charter a week landing and taking off. It isn’t as busy as 2014 but it is a lot busier than it was.

There are still no flights to southern Tunisian cities like Tozeur (for the desert), Tabarka (for visiting the ancient sites at Chemtou (Simittou) and Dougga as well as marine tourism) and Sfax, a place founded on the site of the Roman city of Taparura. For hundreds of years was base for one of the most feared group of people – Barbary pirates – and which, incidentally, contained some British privateers!

In all, I think I am correct in saying that fourteen airports in the UK will have direct flights to Tunisia this coming summer making it easier for Britons to holiday there since 2015.

There are no cruise ships docking in La Goulette – the cruise terminal in Tunis – yet but in 2020 there should be as there are long time lags before cruise companies can schedule trips.

You can see that the tourists are returning in other ways. In Sid Bou Said, a small village beloved by tour operators for its blue and while buildings, souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes, the tourists are plainly visible. In the car park there are dozens of stalls and, on this visit, there were more open than I have seen for some time. On my very first visit in 2012, every stall was open and the area was bustling. It hasn’t returned to those levels yet but the number is increasing with Chinese tourists visiting by the coach load. Come the summer there will be British, Irish, French and other European holidaymakers making an excursion to Sid Bou Said to stare at the buildings, to snack at a banbaloumi, take coffee at places like Delices or lunch at Au Bon Vieux Temps or the Pirate down the hill at the marina.

enjoying a banbaloumi Image © Simon Walton

You can often judge the economic viability of a place by the amount of building activity. For some years there has little. Half-finished houses and hotels stood forlornly awaiting a tourist rebound. Now there are buildings going up, houses being built and repair work under way. From the top of the hill at Carthage Museum looking down over Tunis you will see any number of cranes hovering over buildings. It isn’t only in Tunis that there is activity. You will find it in Douz, Kebali and Tozeur in the south of the country where the desert country begins and in Djerba as well as in Monastir and the other cities along the eastern coastline you will see it as well.

Not all hotels and tourist attractions survived the depression of 2015-2018. One of my favourite hotels, the Temerza Palace in the small town of Temerza which overlooks an abandoned village closed. The thinking is that it may never open again. Yet it is a part of Tunisia where star gazing and multi-coloured rock formations should be attracting the adventurous traveller. Here you will find petrified wood and semi-precious gems and the ever-popular desert roses.

The Tamerza Palace Hotel as it was in 2012 when I first visited it.

Even those hotels that have been around for some time have suffered. With few or no tourists, some hotel owners have been reluctant to maintain the buildings to the standards tourist expect so some hotels holidaymakers might know would properly be classed as three star as opposed to the four or five star that they once were. Flipping through an old 2008, guidebook to Tunisia I was surprised at how few hotels have survived under the original names. Visitors should not expect to see immaculate buildings in which to stay. Some are but some will require the profits from this year to be ploughed back in to them in order to please the tour operators that block-book accommodation for package holidaymakers.

As for attractions, obviously many suffered as fewer overseas tourists visited. In the town of Douz, there is quad buggy/camel riding/microlight attraction which, prior to the 2015 activity had an average of 10,000 visitors each week. Today it is 2,000 in the best week!  One golf course had over 2,000 members whereas, at the lowest point, membership had shrunk to 200 making survival challenging. A marina in Port Yasmine ( Hammamet) has vessels moored there since 2015 and to which owners will never return having no money to claim their boats. But the tourists have returned and the tours around the harbour on the replica galleons are once again proving popular.

About to mount a camel for a desert trip. the camels don’t look happy abouut it. I settled for quad biking instead.

Having survived the worst, all the accommodation providers, the attractions and the destinations hope to prosper now the Britons are returning.

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