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Tunisians Sure Young Democracy Will Lure Tourists

A man and his camels walk along the beach of Hammamet, southeast of Tunis, last month. At the time, people were protesting in the center of the capital, Tunis, calling for the government to resign. The popular revolution chased away tourists.
Martin Bureau
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AFP/Getty Images
A man and his camels walk along the beach of Hammamet, southeast of Tunis, last month. At the time, people were protesting in the center of the capital, Tunis, calling for the government to resign. The popular revolution chased away tourists.

The popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are affecting the tourism industries in both countries.

Tunisia, which succeeded in overthrowing its dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali three weeks ago, is assessing the damage. With its sandy beaches and Roman ruins, Tunisia ranks among the world's top 40 tourist destinations.

The revolution chased the tourists away for now. But many Tunisians believe they will eventually return in far bigger numbers.

Though February isn't high season, the Roman amphitheater in the ancient city of Carthage would usually be full of tourists. But in spite of the warming sun, there is not a soul except for the birds.

"I've never seen it empty like this," says taxi driver Dali Murad, who stands beside the empty ticket booths. "Even in winter we have the cruise ships that dock here, and the Roman theater is always crowded. I'm really worried about things."

Tunisia, a westernized and moderately well-off Arab nation, was a big holiday destination for Europeans, especially the French. About 7 million tourists visited Tunisia under the dictatorship every year. Their business accounted for 7 percent of Tunisia's GDP and provided nearly 500,000 jobs in a country of 10 million people.

But today, the picturesque seaside village of Sidi Bou Said is packed with locals. And a popular boardwalk along the Mediterranean that has long been an upscale promenade for tourists and high-society Tunisians is deserted except for a sheep grazing on some grass shooting through cracks in the sidewalk.

"We are in a crucial period," says economist Mahmoud Ben Romdhane. "We need to establish calm in order to benefit from bookings for the high season that is taking place in June, July and August."

Fisherman Tomy Amor in the surf.
Eleanor Beardsley / NPR
/
NPR
Fisherman Tomy Amor in the surf.

On the beach at the middle-class seaside resort of La Goulette, local fisherman Tomy Amor stands in the surf next to his colorful skiff. He shows off a bucket of giant squid he has just pulled out of the turquoise sea.

"The media talked too much about everything," Amor says. "But these are our problems to work out, and the tourists don't have anything to worry about."

Just off the beach, the Hotel Lido is at 20 percent occupancy.

Hotel director Yassine Belkhodja sits forlornly on a couch in the empty lobby watching the Egyptian revolution unfold on TV. But when he thinks of his own country, a tear runs down his cheek.

"We're a great and old civilization," Belkhodja says. "We didn't deserve to have a president like that. We gave Ben Ali all our confidence. And we never thought it would finish like this."

Back in downtown Tunis, travel agency director Moncef Smaoui isn't so down about things. The revolution interrupted tourism, but he says it was mostly peaceful.

"The name of Tunisia has been all over the world, well-known now," Smaoui laughs. "We will have good chances to start again new perspective for the future."

Smaoui says his friendly and open country drew tons of tourists even when it had a dictator. So imagine, he says, Tunisia's prospects as a democracy.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.