Empty deckchairs and fat camels in Tunisia

The Tunisian seaside resort of Yasmine Hammamet with its fine beach, warm blue sea and welcoming hotels is like a picture postcard in early summer — but with nobody in it.

Europeans, Algerians and Libyans have all deserted the town in the north-west of Tunisia, which is undergoing the worst tourist season in history, like most of the other seaside towns in the North African country since the January revolution that ousted the despot Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

“It’s worse than catastrophic,” said Kamel Ben Abdallah, the manager of a three-star hotel, who normally makes 65% of his income during the summer. In spite of a 40% cut in prices, many rooms are empty.

Ben Abdallah has been forced to slash his staff down to 40, compared with 100 during the same period last year, and he has taken on no seasonal workers.

The hotel manager blames the media for this “enormous waste”, accusing journalists of painting a picture of a “deeply unstable Tunisia” since the popular uprising in January.

“They [the media] only over-dramatise things,” he protested.

The National Office of Tourism on Tuesday announced that 3 000 jobs have been lost so far this year in the tourist sector, which accounts for seven percent of Tunisia’s gross domestic product and usually employs 400 000 people.

The number of tourists arriving has fallen by 39% and income has dropped by 51%.

Yasmine Hammamet is as welcoming as ever but it does not even attract cut-rate tourists this year.

‘My camel has put on weight’
Though renowned for its festive atmosphere, the resort is plunged into a deathly silence. Traders, craftsmen and guides have nothing to do. Even dating is no longer a popular activity.

“My camel has put on weight because it hasn’t moved,” complained Hichem, looking desperately for a client to take for a ride near the marina.

On the beach where the deckchairs are empty, 23-year-old Saber was sitting on one of his 10 bicycles decorated with flags of many nationalities.

“I go whole days without renting a ride, even at the extremely cut rate of five dinars (€2.50, $3.60) for half an hour. The few tourists who are here shun us and stay shut away in their hotels,” he said.

“They don’t come out at night for fear of being attacked. There are a lot of baseless rumours going around,” explained Leila, a trader who plans to shut up shop in August.

“I was advised not to go out at night unaccompanied,” confirmed Florence, a French tourist who preferred not to leave the hotel “for security reasons”.

Last week, the ministry of the interior announced that it was reinforcing the security presence in tourist regions but this measure does not seem to reassure many visitors to post-Ben Ali Tunisia.

According to Philippe Belhay, the Anglo-Tunisian manager of a five-star hotel who has lost 52% of his business, neighbouring “anti-revolutionary countries want to kill off the young Tunisian revolution by putting out rumours on the dangers of instability”.

One totally false rumour about the kidnapping of an Algerian tourist in Sousse circulated in the Tunisian press for about 10 days. Many hotel keepers believe that it was put out to discourage Algerian tourists, who usually make up a substantial part of their clientele.

Overwhelmed, tourist professionals in Tunisia hope to save the season with the help of last-minute reservations. In the meantime, local people receive SMS advertisements every day offering “incredible but true” promotions for seaside hotels with prices cut by 35%. – AFP

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