Interview: Salma Elloumi Rekik
How important is tourism to the economy, and what actions has the Ministry of Tourism and Handicrafts taken to hasten the recovery of the sector?
SALMA ELLOUMI REKIK: The tourism sector accounts for 7-14% of Tunisia’s GDP. For every 10 tourism jobs created, another 24 corollary jobs are generated. Given the significant amount of jobs created directly and indirectly by tourism, a crisis in the sector quickly reverberates throughout the rest of the economy. After the 2015 Sousse attack, the UK imposed a travel ban to the country, which led to a slump in visits from Tunisia’s traditional Western European source markets. As a result, the first measures that were taken to hasten the recovery of the sector focused on ensuring security, which remains one of the country’s top priorities. This means applying international security norms to all elements of the tourist environment, which includes hotels, touristic circuits, restaurants, airports and urban transport. For example, it became obligatory for hotels to conduct security checks at entrances and to implement video surveillance. Hospitality staff have been trained in crisis management and in contacting first responders. Moreover, Tunisia worked with EU member states to improve security: cooperating with the UK to secure airports and with Germany to prepare security manuals.
Tunisia has also transformed its communications strategy, which now focuses more on digital platforms with bloggers and opinion makers in more languages. The National Office for Tunisian Tourism has also created Bonjour Tunisie, a multi-language, digital portal that lays out and introduces Tunisia’s tourism offering to potential visitors. The ministry has supported tour operators and travel agents by facilitating visits to various regions, while also working with European communication agencies to promote Tunisia’s cultural diversity. Furthermore, the ministry completed work with France and Austria to develop quality labels and signage visible in the airport – from information desks and means of transportation to visitor lodging.
In addition, the ministry has supported fiscal incentives such as exemption from social security taxes for tourism-focused companies, including travel agencies, hotels and restaurants. The Tunisian tourism sector will also receive a boost from the finalisation of the open skies agreement with the EU in 2017 and the implementation of an electronic visa system to make it easier for all types of visitors to enter Tunisia.
Why should the country look to diversify beyond the existing tourism offering?
REKIK: Tunisia has over 1200 km of coastline, and the vast majority of Tunisia’s offering is beach tourism. However, beach tourism is seasonal, which means that seaside hotels are only truly active for a portion of the year. Diversifying Tunisia’s offering is vital because the country needs a sector that is active year-round. Moreover, Tunisia needs to attract tourists who are not necessarily interested in beaches, like the Chinese who prefer cultural tourism or the Gulf Arabs who prefer luxury tourism. What is certain is that the country will need to look beyond mass tourism. Tunisia should attract those interested in ecotourism, bed-and-breakfast lodgings, guest houses and riads. In particular, Tunisia must further develop its offering in categories such as Sahara tourism, rural environments, sporting activities and recreational boating.
How can Tunisia distinguish itself from other tourist destinations in the Mediterranean?
REKIK: Tunisia must leverage its three-millennia-old heritage, characterised by a territory that has seen the coming and going of several civilisations, such as the Phoenicians, Byzantines, Romans and Arabs. This heritage has created a national identity that values cosmopolitanism and open-mindedness. Tunisia must also position itself as a destination with something for everyone, boasting a highly diversified, high-quality offering of various products and services for visitors.
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