Refugees replace tourists at Tunisia's holiday island

Hotels are closed and cafés deserted at what should be the height of the tourist season on Tunisia’s holiday island of Djerba.

But Libyan refugees have replaced the usual throng of Europeans and the atmosphere is gloomy.

The Arab Spring has meant hard times for the 125 000 locals on the Mediterranean island of white houses and blue shutters, about 80% of whom make their living directly or indirectly from tourism.

At the Havana café on the marina, only a handful of foreign visitors occupy a couple of tables sheltered from the wind and smattering of rain.

Instead of background music, Al-Jazeera 24-hour satellite television sets the mood.

“Our Libyan clients want it on,” said the waiter, Tarek Frigui.

Tunisia made the headlines in January when a popular uprising forced out long-time dictator Zine El Abidine; now it is the turn of Libya, where growing unrest and Nato-led air strikes have led hundreds of thousands to flee.

More than 70 000 have crossed into neighbouring Tunisia since mid-February, according to the interior ministry, and some of them are in Djerba.

But they are not filling the bars or cafés, and neither are the smattering of European tourists who have ventured in, as tour operators fearful for the safety of their charges whip them directly to the coast for sea cruises.

Looking for safety, not fun
“Buses are hired to transport Europeans directly from their hotels to the boats,” said Frigui, insisting his town his safe.

Last year “we made sometimes 1 000 dinars (about €500) in takings in a morning”, he complained. “This year we managed 200 dinars with difficulty ... Sometimes I would get that much in tips.”

Of the island’s 67 holiday accommodation establishments, “26 should have opened in April, at the start of the summer season, but they have remained closed”, said Jalel Bouricha, head of the regional hotel association.

And it is not the influx of Libyans that is going to make up for the lost earnings, with a drop in tourism revenues contributing to a fall in Tunisia’s economy by 7.8% in the first quarter of the year.

The Libyans on Djerba are “refugees” looking for safety, not fun.

“The Libyans are always asking if their car will be broken into, if they children risk being hurt, if they can go out safely,” said Makram Diri, who has about 30 apartments for rent at the marina.

“The Libyans have moved in here for the long term,” he added.

A school has opened for their children and the market that sells imported Libyan food has taken on new life as the newcomers settle in.

Makram still charges high rents for his properties—between 1 200 and 2 000 dinars a month. But he let them for more to tourists last year.

“Humanely, I could not rent the apartments at the normal rates to families fleeing war,” he said.

In the five-star Royal Garden, some European tourists do wander in and out, taking advantage of the cost-slashing promotional deals it has been forced to offer.

“We are finding ourselves with [guests of] a different social level,” said one employee.

Last month former Libyan oil minister Shukri Ghanem was a guest for a few days: it was his first stop after his defection from Moamer Gaddafi’s under-fire regime.

And today there are about 20 Libyan guests in the hotel, possibly pro-Gaddafi refugees waiting out the storm engulfing their own country. - AFP

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