TUNIS - Tunisia exceeded goals regarding the number of tourists visiting the country in 2019. Figures from the tourism sector gave a touch of optimism in an otherwise morose economy.
Official government data stated that tourism-related revenues in 2019 exceeded expectations despite internal political fluctuations that overshadow the Tunisian economy.
Tunisian Tourism Minister Rene Trabelsi said the number of tourists increased 13.6% in 2019 to 9.5 million, a record level.
Tunisian authorities had set a goal of 9 million tourists for 2019 after 8.3 million people visited the country in 2018. It appears a wide promotional campaign that targeted traditional markets for Tunisian tourism, such as France, Britain and Germany, was successful.
Tourism professionals said Tunisia can expect an even larger number of tourists in 2020, given that overall conditions are stabilising because of a long-term strategy of supporting tourism through infrastructure improvements promoting Tunisia in non-traditional markets.
During a signing ceremony of an agreement between the Ministry of Tourism and the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists January 9, Trabelsi said the sector’s revenues rose substantially last year. Tourism revenues in 2019 totalled about $2 billion. The sector generated $1.5 billion in 2019.
Experts said the data indicate Tunisia’s strong return to the global tourism map after years of inactivity because of terrorist attacks in 2015.
One of the consequences of the boom in the tourism sector has been a noticeable rise in Tunisia’s reserves of foreign currency, a glimmer of hope to alleviate the chronic financial imbalances plaguing the country since the popular uprising of January 2011.
Figures released by Tunisia’s Central Bank at the end of 2019 showed that the country’s foreign currency reserves increased to $6.7 billion — 46% higher than in 2018 — because of the growth in tourism.
If the tourism sector in Tunisia continues its recovery, it is because of improvements in the security situation in the country and to reforms implemented by the government. Authorities said they hope the recovery of the sector will kick-start other sectors of the economy.
Trabelsi has relied on partnerships with various travel agencies and hotels in hard currency.
“We have agreed with all Tunisian hotels and travel agencies to have them complete all reservations and transaction with foreign companies in hard currency,” Trabelsi said, explaining that the strategy supports the influx of hard currency into Tunisia.
Tourism accounts for about 8% of Tunisia’s GDP and is one of the most important sectors of the economy because it provides the second-largest percentage, after the agricultural sector, of employment; 400,000 people work in tourism in Tunisia.
Tunisia intensified efforts to revive tourism with a strategy aimed at attracting more than 10 million tourists in 2020.
Sector professionals confirmed that tourism is going through a period of intense activity unseen in recent years. Desert resorts and hotels overlooking the Mediterranean reported a significant increase in the percentage of foreign arrivals from European countries and Algeria.
The government is also pushing winter tourism in Tunisia. Officials said they hoped the $47.2 million Anantara Resort in Tozeur, in southern Tunisia, will become a high-profile establishment. The resort is expected to be an attractive destination for Gulf tourists, in particular, but also for people from other parts of the world eager to explore the Tunisian desert.
The sector recovered significantly with the return of tourists from traditional markets for Tunisian tourism after many European countries had lifted warning against travel to Tunisia.
The country, however, seeks to go beyond its traditional markets and look to Chinese and Russian markets.
Another factor supporting optimism in tourism is Tunisia’s joining the Open Skies Agreement. Tunisian international airports, except for Tunis-Carthage International Airport, will be open to low-cost European airlines. The capital’s airport will remain outside the agreement for five years to give the country’s national air carrier, Tunisair, time to restructure and prepare for the new air-travel competition
Economists said the agreement will lead to many more tourists. However, their optimism was tempered by fears that it would drive Tunisair out of business. Tunisian authorities said they hope the agreement will increase the number of travellers through the country’s airports to 20 million passengers in the next decade.
Riadh Bouazza is a Tunisian writer.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.