Around two-thirds of Tunisia’s air traffic is generated by tourist arrivals, which means the aviation sector tends to be heavily impacted by the ebbs and flows of visitor numbers. For instance, in the first half of 2015 – following a pair of terrorist incidents in popular tourist areas – the number of travellers across Tunisian airports fell 21.5% compared to the same period in 2014. The country is well endowed in terms of aviation infrastructure, with eight airports, including five providing direct links abroad (see Transport chapter).
With only 500,000 Tunisians having travelled abroad in 2013, local demand remains modest and considering the relative small size of the country, the near to mid-term outlook for domestic carriers remains highly contingent on European demand.
Adapting To Circumstances
Tunisia’s domestic fleet comprises national carrier Tunisair, its subsidiary Tunisair Express, and private operator Nouvelair. On the back of declining passenger numbers, dropping 25% in the first nine months of 2015 compared to 2014, the country’s state-owned company, Tunisair, is grappling with mounting debt, reaching TD936.2m (€429.3m) as of September 2015 and representing a year-on-year increase of 134%. Deep structural reforms are currently being negotiated in a bid to bring the firm back on its feet. Its subsidiary, Tunisair Express, which operates most of its flights locally, is expected to be merged in the near future with its parent company, according to local media reports. The move is aimed at pooling resources and improving operational efficiency for the new travel climate in the country.
Nouvelair, historically a charter flight operator, has been developing a number of regular flights since 2013 to European destinations like France and Germany, links to which the company plans to further expand starting from 2016 in light of a cooperation agreement signed recently with both countries. The company has also begun chartering its aircraft abroad – notably to carriers in Morocco (Royal Air Maroc), Algeria (Air Algérie) and the low-cost Saudi Arabia-based Flynas, among others – in a bid to adapt its fleet domestically to local needs and avoid its resources from going unused. A fourth operator, Syphax Airlines, which is targeting direct long-haul flights, is currently in the planning stages.
Prior to the 2015 events, which led many foreign carriers to suspend their flights, Tunisia was relatively well connected in terms of short and medium-haul flights, linking the country to most of Europe and parts of the Middle East and Africa. Unlike its neighbour Morocco, which has drafted clear plans for companies like Royal Air Maroc, Tunisia has not been able to develop a strategy for dealing with fierce competition arising from Gulf airlines. However, where there is further room for improvement is in the long-haul segment, where Tunisia remains entirely dependent on European and Middle Eastern transit points for tourists to reach the destination.
One major reform which should help stoke a significant increase in visitor figures is the pending open skies agreement with the EU. In the pipeline for several years already, the agreement has gathered momentum in recent months, with a six-month round of negotiations launched end November 2015 for the gradual liberalisation of air traffic between Tunisia and the EU.
The deal is expected to allow new airlines to penetrate the market at competitive rates, and consequently, bolster tourist numbers. This should allow Tunisia to tap into the expected rise in global air passengers, which is due to more than double in size over the next two decades. The agreement is also expected to have a knock-on-effect on a number of related aviation services such as ground transportation, technical assistance and catering.
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