Tourists return to Tunisia after year of turmoil

Wed Apr 25, 2012 1:18pm EDT
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By Lin Noueihed and Tarek Amara

DJERBA, Tunisia (Reuters) - Europeans in white bath robes saunter across the marble lobby of a luxury hotel on the Tunisian island of Djerba, heading for a spot of relaxation at the spa or a few hours' soaking up the sun on the resort's pristine beaches.

At breakfast, the waiters in the restaurant can barely keep up. All around French, German, English and Arabic spoken by Libyans escaping uncertainty in their own country, can be heard amid the chatter.

After a year of revolutionary turmoil that saw tourists flee the Mediterranean hotspot in droves, Tunisia hopes 2012 will mark the start of the recovery in a sector that used to account for almost 7 percent of gross domestic product and employs 500,000 people, second only to the farming sector.

"I heard a lot about the turmoil in the security situation but the reality is completely different because it is safe. We stay out late every night and nothing scares us," said Monica, a French tourist, who has visited Tunisia many times before. She did not wish to give her full name.

"I'm here with my friend this time but in the summer I will come back with the family and I will tell everyone that Tunisia has not changed. It is even more charming than before."

In 2011 fewer than 5 million people visited the country that witnessed the start of the Arab Spring, when a revolution ousted veteran dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, sparking a wave of uprisings across the region.

Visitor numbers were down from 7 million in 2010 while tourism income, Tunisia's top source of foreign currency, fell by a third in 2011, or 1 billion Tunisian dinars ($653 million). Twenty five hotels closed, costing 3,500 jobs.

This year, the sector hopes to recover half its losses, attracting 6 million visitors and raking in 500 million dinars more than last year for its depleted coffers.   Continued...

Tourists look at displayed items for sale as they tour in the medina, the old city of Tunis April 21, 2012. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi