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Tunisia Tourism Hangs in Balance as Political Unrest Continues


Empty streets in Tunisia's seaside resort of Hammamet

Empty streets in Tunisia's seaside resort of Hammamet

Weeks of unrest in Tunisia have undermined a linchpin of the North African country's economy - tourism. Tunisia's tourist industry is a major employer and accounts for 6.5 percent of the country's economic output. But from the tourist resort of Hammamet, it looks like tourists might soon return.

For years Tunisia has profited from its beauty, drawing flocks of European tourists to its beaches, its Roman ruins, and the towns that mirror its rich history.

Now Tunisia is offering a different face to the world - that of revolt. Popular unrest this month has forced President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali from office and kept many tourists away.

The demonstrations shook Tunisia's seaside resort of Hammamet. Furious residents destroyed the home of President Ben Ali's son-in-law.

Now they walk through the remains of the cavernous seaside villa - tourists in their own hometown.

In Hammamet, travel agents like Sadok Younes have time on their hands. Younes says hundreds of tourists have fled. He says he hopes that those who remain will serve as ambassadors to lure back others.

Hammamet's empty streets are mirrored elsewhere in Tunisia. Only locals venture into the cafes of the famous, cliffside town of Sidi Bou Said, which often are crowded, even in January.

Several economic ratings agencies have cut their growth forecasts for Tunisia, warning that continued unrest could deter tourism and foreign investment. But some analysts are more optimistic.

So is Sidi Bou cafe owner Guizeni Ons.

"There are some Japanese, some Americans, I think. Yesterday I saw two," Ons said. "And they are, as usual, looking and enjoying the sand and quiet. Yes, but also I think they are enjoying these events."

In Hammamet, Bert Saunders of Britain says he is looking at Tunisia and its former former president in a different way.

"I was never aware of just how much of a dictator he was," he said. "We've lived here for two years. And as tourists, we got treated very openly and fairly. And I think that's the general nature of Tunisian people."

Marie Lucas of France, who gazes out to sea at Hammamet's port one afternoon, says she feels closer to a country she knows well after its often-called "Jasmine Revolution."

Lucas says tourists should come here to boost Tunisia's economy and its fledgling democracy.

In Sidi Bou Said, cafe owner Ons says the country's popular uprising might also boost tourism.

"We will always have our sun, our beaches, our hotels, our quiet and our security. And more than this, we will have our freedom," said Ons. "And this will be good this for tourism, I think - not the opposite."

Ons says he is certain of one thing - freedom is good for Tunisia.

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