Tunisia's Beaches, Antiquities and Crafts Attracting 3.6 Million Tourists Annually

By Curtiss, Richard H. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January 31, 1994 | Go to article overview

Tunisia's Beaches, Antiquities and Crafts Attracting 3.6 Million Tourists Annually


Curtiss, Richard H., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Tunisia's Beaches, Antiquities and Crafts Attracting 3.6 Million Tourists Annually

Tunisian Minister of Tourism and Handicrafts Mohamad Jegham, a handsome man with just a touch of grey in his carefully combed hair, radiates friendly competence. At age 52 he is self-assured, helpfully taking questions in English but responding in French to make sure that his rapid, fact-filled answers are completely accurate.

After more than five years in his present position, he has been in Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's cabinet longer than any other minister. Tourism is Tunisia's biggest foreign exchange earner and, after agriculture, largest employer. Tourism earns $1 billion annually for Tunisia, and directly employs 60,000 people, such as hotel workers, and indirectly employs another 250,000 people, such as taxi-drivers.

It has given rise to whole new industries, such as the many greenhouses to supply the country's hotels with fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, and new-old occupations, such as "camel men," in the south, where European vacationers leave the sand and sea of Tunisia's Mediterranean beaches for one- day excursions into the Sahara to explore the nearly vanished world of desert oases and caravan stops.

A major component of Mr. Jegham's job is to bring together Western tourism promoters with wealthy entrepreneurs, particularly investors from the Arabian peninsula and Gulf and the Arab development banks in which the Gulf countries have their petroleum earnings. In this capacity, Tunisia's tourism minister also finds himself a major player in regional development--seeking to take the tourism jobs to the country's less-developed areas where the potential employees are, and thus slow the rural migration to the cities that underlies so many social and economic problems in other developing countries.

One such regional project is in Tabarka, an area of spectacular beauty only two hours west of Tunis, the national capital. At Tabarka, just inside the border from Algeria, the eastern foothills of the Atlas mountain range, which traverses Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, meet the sea.

Here, on Tunisia's "coral coast" in an area of sculptured sandstone rocks, clear waters perfect for snorkelers and scuba divers, and white sand beaches, the Tunisian government has promoted a major joint venture with the Kuwait Development Bank to create a popular and rapidly expanding resort region.

It is an area where European visitors and wealthy Tunisians have for many years built get-away villas on the slopes over-looking a small fishing harbor and ancient castle dating back to the days of the Barbary pirates, and earlier. Now the old port has new shopping arcades and a spectacular hotel of the country-wide Abu Nawas chain. The hotel opened this spring and is jointly owned by the Abu Dhabi Development Bank and the Tunisian government.

Visitors to the hotel or its surrounding villas may lounge around an Olympic-size pool, swim in the gentle surf only steps from the hotel, or play the 18-hole golf course overlooking the sea. Similar new tourist complexes in the southeastern end of the country take advantage of the broad white sand beaches of Tunisia's east coast to push tourist horizons further and further south toward the Libyan border and Tunisia's sparsely inhabited desert interior.

The result is an impressive story of successful tourism development that began in 1960, only four years after Tunisia gained its independence from France. This year the country expects 3,600,000 tourists, most of them from Western Europe, for an average stay of 9 days each. For a country of 8 million inhabitants, this amounts to a flood of hard-currency-bearing travelers, and accounts for the fact that Tunisia, although only recently self-sufficient in oil, is a moderately prosperous country without the sharp gulf between rich and poor characteristic of the Third World.

In fact, travel in any direction reveals prosperous small towns and villages whose people are indistinguishable in dress or demeanor from the residents of the sophisticated seaside capital.

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