TUNIS - On July 10, a day after jihadists killed six members of Tunisia’s security services near the Algerian border, Algerian Interior Minister Noureddine Bedoui stood at the main border crossing between the two countries to personally supervise the flow of Algerian tourists into Tunisia.
Bedoui’s presence on the border, encouraging Algerians to visit Tunisia, reflected the country’s long-standing economic and security support for its neighbour.
A month later, Algerian tourist numbers had improved, jumping from a daily average of 17,000 in July to an average of 20,000 per day during the first 14 days of August, figures from the Algerian Interior Ministry indicated. Tunisian and Algerian officials said they expected the number of Algerian tourists to be 2.2 million-2.7 million this season, a strong sign of recovery for Tunisia’s leisure industry.
In 2015, Tunisia’s tourism industry took a hit following deadly attacks on Tunis’s Bardo National Museum and a beach resort in Sousse, which killed dozens of tourists, most of whom were from Europe.
After largely suspending operations involving Tunisia, major European tour operators have begun sending tourists back to Tunisia on package deals. The number of foreign visitors rose 23% to 4.4 million for the first half of the year, compared to the same period a year earlier, Tourism Minister Salma Elloumi Rekik announced.
This led to a 42% increase in tourism earnings, which stood at $554 million for the first seven months, Elloumi said.
Tunisian officials predict that approximately 8 million tourists will spend holidays in Tunisia this year, above the pre-attack level of 7.1 million in 2014.
Despite the strong increase in tourism numbers, the country still takes in less revenue than it did before its 2011 revolution, due to a stubborn economic downturn that is underlined by a weakened currency.
While there were 1.8 million tourists from January-July in 2010 — far lower than the 4.4 million who arrived during the same period this year — the 2010 tourists spent $2.3 billion, almost four times the level for the same period this year.
That shows just how much of an effect the country’s economic crisis has had on tourism rates and the economy at large, experts said.
The steady increase of Algerian tourists has come as a welcome development, bringing at least moderate relief to the embattled industry. Algerian economist Khaliss Tablati noted that “the annual rise of tourists from Algeria to Tunisia has been at no less than 17% annually over the last three years.
Other economists said that even more Algerian tourists would visit Tunisia if not for the fall of the Algerian dinar, which has particularly hit the country’s middle class, who are most likely to visit Tunisia.
They said rich Algerians usually spend their holidays in Spain, Europe or Asia and the upper-middle class visit Turkey.
All Algerians are entitled to a 100 euro ($114) annual tourism allowance.
However, many Algerians obtain foreign currency in cash on the black market at higher rates than the official rate at the banks.
Economist Yacine Babouche said the value of the Algerian dinar had lost 50% since mid-2014 against the US dollar.
With the current economic landscape, and given that Algeria has yet to develop tourism at home, Tunisia is likely to remain a big market for Algerians.
Despite Algeria’s 1,600km Mediterranean shoreline, important cultural and historical sites and vast desert expanse that could make it a key tourist spot in the Maghreb, the government has put little effort into developing its tourism sector, which accounts for 1.4% of its GDP. Most tourists in Algeria are expatriates returning home for holidays.
In 2017, the World Economic Forum ranked Algeria 118th out of 136 countries in terms of travel and tourism competitiveness, far behind Morocco and Tunisia, which ranked 65th and 87th, respectively.
Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.