Tunisia broadens tourism horizons as industry rebounds
TUNIS - As holidaymakers flock to Tunisia once more following a series of attacks, the country's tourism minister has his sights set on diversifying the industry and taking visitors beyond the beach.
"Practically all the big tour operators here have returned," said Rene Trabelsi, six months into his ministerial post.
He credits "huge efforts" for making the country safe for visitors again, after attacks in 2015 targeting tourists.
Gunmen killed 21 foreign visitors and a Tunisian security guard at the capital's Bardo National Museum, followed by a shooting rampage at a Sousse beach resort which left 38 people dead -- mostly British tourists.
Britain, France and other countries have recently eased their travel warnings, deeming most of Tunisia now safe.
Two million holidaymakers have visited Tunisia so far this year, according to government figures touted by the tourism minister.
That marks a 24 percent jump on the same period last year, and a 7 percent increase compared to the 2010 industry reference point.
But despite tourists returning, revenue has so far failed to reach that of nearly a decade ago.
The indebted industry is heavily reliant upon cheap "all-inclusive" holidays and the government is trying to diversify the tourism sector, which accounts for around 7 percent of GDP.
"During the high season, Tunisia will be packed, but we're interested in the low season, from September to March," said Trabelsi, sitting behind his large desk in the capital Tunis.
The minister wants to attract tourists over the winter months who are also interested in activities away from the beach.
"We're negotiating with the tour operators" to offer charter flights after the summer, said Trabelsi who hopes visitors will sign up for golf, spa treatments and cultural activities.
"This year already, a lot of hotels which closed during winter after the crisis, want to stay open," he said.
An electronic music festival in southern Tunisia is due to take place in September, while a jazz festival is planned in Tabarka near the Algerian border.
No 'right to fail'
Whereas half the holidaymakers in 2010 were European, they now make up less than a third of visitors amid an increasing number of tourists from other North African countries and further afield.
The government aims to welcome nine million visitors this year, but Trabelsi said Tunisians still need to tackle "environmental terrorism" to avoid scaring tourists away.
"I'm using that word to shock and alert," said the minister, warning that poor environmental standards can put tourists off "like when there's an attack".
Following Tunisia's 2011 revolution, authorities failed to keep atop of waste management. Municipal councils were elected for the first time a year ago but the clean-up is far from complete.
"We also have a cultural problem," said Trabelsi. "If each person swept outside their front door, that would already be huge."
Trabelsi has for years been co-organiser of an annual Jewish pilgrimage to Djerba, where his father is president of the island's synagogue, and in the 1990s he set up his own travel agency.
But months into his first political post, he said he has no intention of staying in government long-term.
"I want to make a mark, and Tunisians expect a lot from me. I come from the private sector, I have a different religion, so I don't have the right to fail," Trabelsi said.
"But once my mission is accomplished, I'll return to my own affairs."