2016/05/22 Issue: 57 Page: 18
The Arab Weekly
Tunis – Tunisian Minister of Tourism Salma Elloumi Rekik is confident the country “remains an ideal destination” for foreign tourists and can bounce back from the predicament caused by last year’s terror incidents.
Elloumi, the second woman to hold the position of Tourism minister in Tunisia in recent years, is a leading member of Nidaa Tounes, the main secularist party. She joined the government formed after the 2014 elections. It was not an easy start for her.
“2015 was the most difficult year in the history of tourism in Tunisia,” Elloumi said. The sector had been in crisis since 2011 but “the Sousse attack was a disaster, especially after the British and Belgian travel warnings”.
Thirty-eight foreigners, mostly British, were killed by a jihadist gunman in June 2015 at the seaside resort 140km south of Tunis. Three months earlier, 21 tourists were killed during an attack on the Bardo National Museum. The Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for both attacks.
“In 2015, the number of tourists fell by 26%,” she said. Tourism revenues fell to $1.5 billion, a 30% decline. Tourist arrivals totalled 5.5 million in 2015 and are expected to stay at that level for 2016.
The Central Bank of Tunisia said tourism revenue in the first two months of 2016 was off 54% compared with the same period in 2015.
Elloumi was diplomatic in expressing disappointment about British and Belgian travel warnings, which continue to hamper the tourism sector recovery.
“It is their sovereign decision but the most affected are the Tunisian people,” she said, referring to the carry-over effect of tourism to “large chunks of the economy”.
Tourism accounts for more than 7% of Tunisia’s gross national product (GNP) and 15% of foreign currency. It employs more than 400,000 people in a country plagued by chronic unemployment, which tops 15%. Tunisia’s GNP growth rate fell to 0.8% in 2015. Tunisian officials and many private tour operators say foreign governments should take into consideration improvements in the security situation at hotels and tourist sites.
“The warnings have not been specific to certain parts of Tunisia, such as border areas. They instead paint the whole country as a danger zone. That’s unfair and inaccurate,” said a senior Tunisian official who asked not to be named. Elloumi pointed to progress in enhancing security measures since the 2015 attacks. “Security agencies have retaken the initiative. Terrorists are on the defensive,” she said. “We have pressed on with new security measures around hotels, tourism circuits and travels venues.
“We are even ready to close down hotels that do not meet security standards.”
Many of the country’s international partners have been associated in the security review.
“We work in full transparency with our partners, such as the Germans and the British, with whom we exchange all information about security. They are aware of the progress we had made,” said Elloumi.
“It is understood very well, now that tourism cannot work without compliance with international security standards.”
In addition to paying attention to security considerations, Elloumi said she is working to transform the ministry and its specialised branches into more efficient agencies.
It is from the private sector, where she was a successful businesswoman, that Elloumi draws most of her experience in terms of enterprise restructuring. New strategies for diversification of tourism products and foreign clientele are being designed.
“We are developing other assets beside beach-related tourism, which has until now accounted for 80% of tourism output,” Elloumi said. “Such activity cannot provide business for more than four or five months per year, while Tunisia has a huge wealth in many other ways.”
She said she sees a largely untapped potential in cultural tourism. “We boast more than 40,000 historical sites from north to south, Elloumi said. “Each region of the country has its characteristics.”
She also predicted great potential in wellness tourism, ecological tourism and even gastronomic tourism.
Diversification is key when it comes to looking for new clientele. Promotional efforts have targeted Russian and Chinese tourists.
Final touches are also being put on an Open Sky aviation liberalisation agreement that should increase European traffic to Tunisian airports. “Open Sky will be effective in early 2017 at the latest,” Elloumi said. “Tunis-Carthage International Airport will have a grace period of four years.”
Elloumi shares the viewpoint of many Tunisian and foreign tourism experts who say that Tunisia’s tourism sector has suffered from a vicious circle in which the country’s appeal has for too long been held hostage to inexpensive packages that led to dwindling quality of service and reliance on one single asset: Beaches. “We need to upgrade the services across the whole chain of tourist experience from arrival at airport to the last moment of the trip,” she said.
But all said and done, Tunisian tourism authorities still must tackle the image problem. In addition to being seen as a “cheap destination”, Tunisia suffers from the same image problem as Muslim countries throughout the Mediterranean. “All these destinations are experiencing substantial decline as a result of an unjustifiable association of Islam with terrorism,” Elloumi said.
She said she sees hopeful signs on the horizon. Prestigious hotel chains such as Four Seasons, the Ritz Carlton and Six Senses are planning to open properties in Tunisia by 2017. “This proves that current difficulties are only transient,” said Elloumi.
Oussama Romdhani is the chief editor of the Arab Weekly.