Striking a balance: After a turbulent few years, the sector is drawing on the lessons it has learned

Prior to the 2011 revolution, political stability and low-cost all-inclusive packaged holidays turned Tunisia into a safe, affordable and sunny destination for holidaymakers. But, while it ensured regular tourist flows to the country every year, their numbers only evolved by 2m in the decade leading to 2010, increasing from 5m to just 7m, which is slow if compared to other Mediterranean markets like Morocco and Egypt, where visitor numbers during the same period increased from 4m to 9m and 5m to 14m, respectively.

The roots of this problem can be found in the heightened competition in the region, heavy reliance on European tour operators to draw in tourists, and a lack varied of offerings – all of which has prompted Tunisia to try and diversify its attractions, infrastructure and source markets.

A Mono-Product Destination

In spite of its traditional reputation as a package tourism destination, Tunisia has a wide range of tourist activities available, ranging from golf courses, marinas, conference centres, thalassotherapy and spa facilities. However, more than 90% of the people who visit the country, come to enjoy its sun and sandy beaches. That is certainly understandable, given that Tunisia has a coastline of 1300 km and more than 300 days of sun a year, and today, 90% of Tunisia’s hotels are located along its seaside.

Tour Operators

In the decade leading to 2011, relative political stability and affordable accommodation secured an ascending trend, albeit moderate, of foreign visitor numbers to the country, with the largest majority arriving on packaged holidays via tour operators. In a bid to put attractive packages on offer, tour operators exerted pressure on Tunisian hoteliers to keep tariffs low in exchange for higher volumes of tourists.

Although things have begun to change in more recent years, tour operators still maintain a significant degree of influence over the local industry. While the number of online reservations across the globe is on the rise, most tourists travelling to Tunisia still prefer to book their holidays with a tour operator. This fact is even more true in light of the recent events in the country.

“Tunisia needs its tour operators but it also needs to strike a better balance by involving operators in other product offerings and not just seaside tourism,” Houssem Ben Azouz, president of the Professional Association for Tourism ( Groupement Professionnel du Tourisme), told OBG.

Paying The Price

The need for a better balance in the tourism sector was made clear over the past decade. In recent years, other Mediterranean destinations such as Turkey, Egypt and Morocco began to increase their market share, benefitting from an increase in low-cost connections and improved marketing schemes.

Revenues in Tunisia’s tourism industry lagged behind as a result. For instance, the 6.5m tourists visiting Morocco in 2006 generated Dh52.9bn (€4.9bn) in tourism revenues, while the 6.7m tourists who visited Tunisia generated just TD3.5bn (€1.6bn). While this is partly attributed to the pressure exerted on hotel fees, it can also be explained by the fact that – unlike Morocco, which offered a range of cultural, environmental, sports and city tourism attractions – Tunisia was largely dependent on the sun and sea segment.

Similarly, revenues that had traditionally held steady at around TD3.5bn (€1.6bn) per year began to slide, dropping to TD2.3bn (€1.1bn) in 2011, according to data from the Ministry of Tourism. Although figures gradually improved thereafter, the terrorist incidents in peak season in 2015 – which claimed the lives of over 50 tourists – halted the recovery, with revenues at just TD2.2bn (€1.1bn) by the end of 2015, down 35% compared to 2014 and 31.4% from 2010. Visitor numbers also slid, falling from 6m in 2014 to 4.9m as of November 2015, according to data from the Ministry of Tourism, while a majority of tour operators decided to totally withdraw from the country until March 2016. Among the international firms which have temporarily ceased operations in Tunisia are UK-based Thompson Holidays, Thomas Cook and Ireland’s Sunway.

Sourcing New Markets

In response, the country is taking a number of steps to burnish its appeal as a holiday destination and is looking further afield to attract new customers in a bid to strike a better balance in terms of foreign arrivals, reduce its dependence on the European market and stave off competition from other Mediterranean players. To that end, entry visas for visitors arriving from a number of African and Arab countries were abolished in spring 2015. These included Jordan, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Botswana and the Central African Republic. In July 2015, Tunisia announced it was also abolishing visas for tourists arriving from Belarus, Kazakhstan, Mexico and Angola.

Global tourism indicators provide cause for optimism with international tourist arrivals hitting a record 1.14bn in 2014 and according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the industry is expected to grow 4% a year, faster than financial services, transport and manufacturing.

Domestic Tourism

Tunisia is also looking to further tap into its own domestic market. According to local media, the number of hotel nights purchased by Tunisians between 2010 and 2014 has increased by an annual average of 26%. In 2015, the number of hotel nights purchased by Tunisians stood at 4.4m as of November 20 accounting for 30% of overall spent nights. Realising the potential this market has to offer, hoteliers have sought in recent years to develop a variety of offers targeting Tunisian tourists, ranging from promotional rates on stays in high-end hotels to weekend packages and wellness offerings. They also offer arts and entertainment choices, such as the public street art exhibition, Djerbahood, which took place on the island of Djerba in 2014 and the electronic music festival, Dunes Electroniques, in Ong Jemel, that same year.

Emerging Trends

Tunisia will need to restore confidence in its institutions to lure back visitors, but also identify and adapt to rising trends, something that was reiterated in the World Economic Forum’s 2015 “Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report”, asserting that “new trends are emerging, and the countries performing better in the Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index are those that are better equipped to capture the opportunities they bring”. Putting the right infrastructure in place is one important step forward. “Family tourism across Europe accounts for 50% of tourism activity. The absence of adequate accommodation, like apart-hotels and camping sites, however, deprives Tunisia from further tapping into this market,” Ben Azouz told OBG.

Devising offerings in line with today’s traveller’s needs is the next step in the right direction. The decline in the average length of stay per visitor to Tunisia in the past decade, dropping from 6.6 nights in 2000 to 4.7 nights in 2010, is one important aspect that needs to be taken into consideration and addressed accordingly. Innovative short break packages constitute one option to break with the tradition of long holiday packages that Tunisia has been popular for. The ratification of the open skies agreement with the EU could potentially serve to bolster this trend, as the arrival of low-cost airlines is expected to enhance access and affordability for many potential visitors.