A sea change for tourism in Tunisia

Six months after the unrest that heralded the Arab Spring, this nation's once-bustling Mediterranean resorts hope to welcome visitors again

'Visitors, they come, maybe spend 30 minutes, they buy some trinket, learn nothing about the town, nothing of the culture, nothing about the heritage of this café. We want to change the mentality. Now maybe after the revolution, perhaps there's a chance." Walid Ben Said, aged 32, fifth-generation owner of Café El Alia in Tunisia's pretty blue- and-white-painted coastal town of Sidi Bou Said, bemoaned the ignorance of tourists. At least, though, he no longer needs to give backhanders to the regime of the former dictator, Ben Ali. "Now we can say what we like. And we no longer have to give money to celebrate the coup d'état of Ben Ali. Those people, if you made any money, they always wanted to share – not the work, just the money."

Remarkably, my tour guide during a brief sojourn in post-revolutionary Tunisia turned out to be a nephew of Habib Bourguiba, the country's well-loved first president, deposed 24 years ago in a coup by his prime minister, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Lotfi Bourguiba had eschewed a career as a lawyer for a life in travel, working for the national tourist board. He smiled: "It wasn't for me, all day in a court with criminals, defending those who have done wicked things. I preferred to be out in the country, in the sunshine, among the people."

Walking downhill from the café, we took lunch at Au Bon Vieux Temps restaurant in Sidi Bou Said where, within a suitably traditional building, a celebrity gallery catalogued previous diners: Nicolas Sarkozy, his wife Carla, former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. In this esteemed company, over lamb tagine and local Magon red wine, Lotfi attempted to convey the recent remarkable changes in Tunisia's political landscape – at times lost for words, humbled by a grassroots revolution that had seen off the long years of the Ben Ali kleptocracy.

"Right now it's a special time, a very interesting and historic time, to be in Tunisia. It all started with the death of Mohammed Bouazizi." The unlicensed street vendor, whose wares were confiscated by a zealous municipal official, set himself alight last December having being denied the means to make a living. Protests at his treatment catalysed Tunisia's revolution and triggered what has become known as the Arab Spring. "Tunisians are very proud to have had the first revolution. But it's not been easy," said Lotfi.

Underlining this, despite the excellent food, the warm breeze and the stunning views across the Bay of Tunis, there were few customers.

Later, outside Tunis, I surveyed the long sandy beaches of La Marsa, where others, too, were feeling the pinch. A peripatetic tat trader, weighed down by bangles and stuffed toy camels, enquired from which part of Germany I hailed. Since Northumberland doesn't possess a Bahnhofstrasse, my answer must have disappointed.

Having fluffed his opening pitch, he improvised. "Ah, business has been very bad. It's getting better but just a little, not like last year. You work here, or are you just another journalist?"

Before I could reply, a pale crocodile of Europeans led by a German-speaking Tunisian waving a wooden number on a stick, arrived on the sand. Spying these new arrivals, my entrepreneurial friend was keen to be off: "Excuse me. Business is looking 100 per cent better over there."

Following the political tumult, Tunisia's visitor numbers fell sharply. According to the Tourist Board, figures for May showed 36 per cent fewer travellers from the UK compared with 2010.

In an attempt to regain custom, many hotels discounted room rates or offered "added value", such as free extra nights. As if to lend gravitas to his case, Lotfi was keen to introduce me to M'Hammed Driss, a spry 86-year-old, and a man he described as the father of Tunisian tourism – who now owns 20 hotels.

In the reception of a modest four-star property in downtown Sousse, Tunisia's third city and a major coastal resort, we knocked on an innocuous door next to the reception desk. I followed Lotfi into a large shelf-lined office where behind a busy-looking desk in the corner of the room, a neat, bespectacled M'Hammed Driss stood to greet us.

"I opened my first hotel in 1956; that's when people first started to come," he said. "Today, tourists wouldn't find any difference from last year – all across the country there's no problem for them."

In another part of town lies Sousse's new Mövenpick hotel (the second-largest in the chain – only the one in Mecca is larger). The hotel's marketing manager, Mohamed Maknine, described how the hotel had been affected. "When we opened fully in October, everything was better than we expected," he said. "Then came the unrest and the revolution. At one point we had just 30 guests. Luckily for us, we're in the centre of town; we never intended to be an isolated fortress for foreigners. We're open on to the street and accessible to local people."

As if to emphasise Mohamed's point, the hotel was in the middle of a convention for Nestlé Tunisia, a reminder that despite its undoubted importance, Tunisia's economy is not a tourism monoculture; local production includes textiles for high-street names such as Benetton and hi-tech electronics for such giants as Airbus.

Amid humid air along the torrid convolutions of Sousse's souk, demand for butchered sheep seemed as strong as ever. From the ground, a dissociated sheep's eyeball gazed up as I looked down, neither sad nor happy. Popular revolutions were of little consequence in the life and death of fat lambs.

As I drove out of town, I saw boys waving poles from which lizards were strung by their tails. "They're chameleons. Ben Ali's wife liked to slit their throats. Most people just buy them to take home alive, for good luck," said my driver. Tunisia's political complexion has taken on a democratic hue that surprised many, but it's still the Tunisia of beaches, history, cuisine and liberal Islam. And it seems as though even life for lizards is looking up.

Travel essentials

Getting there

The writer flew from Heathrow to Tunis with Tunisair (020-7734 7644; www.tunisair.com), Tunis is also served from Gatwick by British Airways.

(0844 493 0787; www.ba.com)



Staying there

Regency Tunis Hotel, La Marsa, Tunis (00 216 7191 0900; www.regencyhotel-tunis.com) Doubles start at €95, including breakfast.

Mövenpick Resort & Marine Spa, Sousse

(00 216 73 202 000;

www.moevenpick-hotels.com)

Doubles start at €126, including breakfast.



Eating there

Au Bon Vieux Temps, Sidi Bou Said

(00 216 7174 4733)



More information

The latest travel advice from the Foreign Office (0845 850 2829; www.fco.gov.uk) says: "A state of emergency exists and curfews or other temporary movement restrictions may be imposed or changed with little or no notice. You should observe instructions given by local security authorities and/or your tour operator." However, it also states: "The number and frequency of incidents of unrest since the 'Jasmine Revolution' in January 2011 has diminished."



Tunisia Tourist Board: 020-7224 5561 www.cometotunisia.co.uk

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Ashdown Group: Print Designer - High Wycombe - Permanent £28K

    £25000 - £28000 per annum + 24 days holiday, bonus, etc.: Ashdown Group: Print...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Travel Consultant

    £20000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in London, Manches...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager

    £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager required for ...

    Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator

    £25000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator A...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones