Business

Tunisia tourism industry suffers amid Libya violence

Djerba beach
Image caption Djerba's beaches are deserted - tourists are concerned about violence in Libya

Two men sit by the side of the road, one singing and the other smoking a cigarette.

Dressed in traditional white robes and red hats, on their laps are baskets containing bunches of jasmine - a popular purchase for visitors to Tunisia.

But it is proving a hard sell at the moment.

On 14 January, this country saw a peaceful revolution, but since then protests have spread across the region. And now the violence escalating in neighbouring Libya is deterring tourists.

'Catastrophic'

That means business is tough for people in Sidi Bou Saïd, about 20km outside the capital Tunis.

Image caption Sidi Bou Said is one of Tunisia's most popular tourist destinations

The hillside village is usually a big draw for tourists because of its pretty, white-washed houses and bright pink bougainvillea that hangs over the village's doors and windows.

"The cruise ships aren't coming any more because of Libya," says shopkeeper Mondher Regichi.

"Our revolution has already happened but the problems are now being caused by Libya."

And Mondher is worried. He says business is down by two-thirds on normal levels, and other shopkeepers are even less hopeful.

"The situation is really catastrophic," adds Batrikh Mohamed Aziz, who owns a shop down the road from Mondher. He says he is only seeing about 1% of normal business.

Money-maker

Tourism is crucial to Tunisia's economy. With a population of little more than 10 million people, the industry provides about 400,000 jobs and is worth about $2.5bn (£1.5bn) to the economy.

In the south, the problem is exacerbated. The holiday island of Djerba is just 130km from the border with Libya and, while the peak season has started, more than half of the hotels remain shut.

But it is not just the lack of Western tourists that is taking its toll.

Image caption Shop owner Mondher Regichi says business is tough

Of the seven million tourists that come to Tunisia every year, about one-and-a-half million are Libyan, and many of them come to Djerba. That business has all but dried up since the fighting began over the border.

The Radisson Blu has nearly 300 rooms. Normally it is almost full at this time of year. Now, though, barely 100 rooms are occupied, and even that figure has been given a boost by the presence of foreign correspondents waiting to cross the border.

"We usually get quite a lot of Libyans coming - maybe couples for their honeymoon," says manager Christian Antoine.

"But obviously there is no chance to have that. We have Easter in April. Bookings are still very quiet."

'Under sufferance'

With four out of five people on the island working in tourism, Djerba's tourism authorities are trying to address the problem.

"Djerba is a place that functions thanks to tourism - both directly from hotels or travel agents or through the trade you see everywhere, like handicrafts, pottery and ceramics," says Mohamed Essayem, Djerba's regional director for Tunisia's tourism ministry.

Image caption Cruise ships have stopped coming to Tunisia because of the unrest

"At the moment, there's a lull and we're in the process of working on a solution with the hotels to get the island working as best as we can, trying to reopen, even if working at a slightly reduced rate."

The hope is that government support and good marketing can get the industry going again.

Back in Sidi Bou Said, the tourists who have made it to Tunisia are upbeat about their experience.

"A lot of people told me, 'Oh don't go to Tunisia, you're going to see a lot of people from the army with guns and you can't leave the hotel," says one tourist from Belgium.

"But there's no problem here. The Tunisians are glad to see you, they're happy there are tourists."

Another visitor from Britain said: "We didn't want to come because of the problems".

"But everything started to settle down so the tour operator didn't stop us coming, sent us our tickets and we had to come under sufferance. We weren't looking forward to it but we've been very [pleasantly] surprised."

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