Last month I flew to Tunis and spent a week exploring Roman, pre-Roman and pre-historic sites across Tunisia.
I’ve been ‘back to Tunisia’ before, after the Jasmine Revolution, the first and most effective popular revolt of the Arab Spring. This time it was the murder in 2015 of 30 British tourists and eight others on the beach in Sousse that defined ‘back.’
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice has been revised. Coastal regions and much of the country’s north are now ‘green.’ Further south, about 50% of Tunisia falls into ‘all but essential travel’ in FCO terms, while mountainous areas to the west near Algeria and southern areas abutting Libya remain ‘red’ zones. Despite this relaxation, while legal action continues in UK courts, tour operators have been understandably slow to act.
Tunisia’s tourism eggs were mostly collected in one fragile basket i.e. beach holidays. An emphasis on all-inclusives was another characteristic. When all is said and done cheap holidays featuring sea, sand and all-you-can-eat buffets are not a unique selling point. The world is full of sand.
Tunisia is not mineral rich. Educational standards are good but unemployment is high. While agriculture, high-tech manufacturing and textile production provide some economic foundation, the effect of the tourism downturn has been profound.
Tunisia’s remarkable sites of antiquity may draw some visitors back. Carthage is best known, but oversold and underwhelming – a jumble of middling ruins. It’s the context of the Punic Wars that’s engaging. Far more impressive ancient headliners include El Djem’s magnificent 35,000-seater amphitheatre – second only to Rome’s Colosseum, the atypical Romanised hilltop town of Thugga, the still-being-excavated city of Bulla Regia, the Genoese fort at Tabarka and the Great Mosque of Kairouan. Elsewhere, the mosaics at Sousse’s Archaeological Museum and Tunis’s superlative Bardo Museum are unmissable, almost worthy of a trip to the country in their own right.
Tunisia’s ancient world will never bring the numbers required by mass tourism – an indictment of the industry perhaps? The coast’s cavernous resorts are currently consumed by a race to the bottom, pitching discounted all-inclusive packages to the Russian market for ever reducing returns.
Tunisia has a genuine wealth of appeal; striking landscapes – over and above its coastlines, a rich ancient and contemporary history, engaging Arab and French culture, excellent cuisine and fine wines, mountain hiking, (FCO permitting) desert trekking, and a diverse natural history.
Some holiday flights look set to operate from May 2018. What’s the plan? More of the same? Tunisia’s many unique attributes are unlikely to be embraced by large tour operators. They’re simply too irregular for businesses built on sand.