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;


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