Catherine Field

Catherine Field on European affairs

Attacks take big toll on Tunisia tourism sector

By Catherine Field

Tunisia is pulling out the stops to shore up its tourism industry after sporadic attacks by Islamic extremists during the summer season sullied the country's image for tolerance and hospitality.

More than 18 months after the start of the Arab Spring that toppled authoritarian leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, European tourists are still reluctant to return in the same numbers to the North African country's white-sand resorts, Roman ruins and deserts.

In the first eight months of this year, 1.9 million Europeans went on holiday in Tunisia, more than 30 per cent up on the same period last year, when the country was in the throes of revolution.

But it remained way short of the 2.49 million who came during the same period in 2010, according to Tunisian Government figures.

Hundreds of hotels have slashed their prices, seeking to win back Europeans who last year plumped for Spain, the Balkans and Turkey for their sun-and-sand holiday.

With growing uncertainty over the political direction of Tunisia's Government and a perception that the Arab Spring is turning sour, the President himself is seeking to dispel fears of an Islamic Winter.

"Millions of tourists come to Tunisia and they are never hassled. The Salafists understand this and want to put us under pressure," President Moncef Marouki told the French newspaper Le Figaro, referring to Islamists who espouse Saudi-style puritanism.

A human-rights activist, Marouki is also leader of a leftist group, the Congress for the Republic, which is in coalition with a moderate Islamic party, Ennahda, and the secular left-wing Ettakatol.

"These incidents are insignificant in terms of their capacity to influence Tunisian society but, unfortunately, they are hyper-significant in terms of their ability to harm Tunisia's image."

It is hard to underestimate the importance of tourism in Tunisia, a country with a hugely growing population but few natural resources.

The sector says it accounts for 7 per cent of gross domestic product. It directly employs 400,000 people, meaning that it supports two million people, or nearly a fifth of the population.

During the 23-year presidency of French-educated Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the Government played up Tunisia's tolerant, women-friendly image even as it brutally crushed dissent and let corruption flourish.

But the aftermath of Ben Ali's ousting shows just how tough the path to stability and mature democracy can be.

In the first free elections, Ennahda won more than 40 per cent of seats in Parliament and has the dominant hand in the governing coalition.

Its victory has triggered accusations of entryism by hardliners. Some Salafists now occupy influential posts and, say critics, their foot soldiers have attacked businesses deemed morally suspect.

Gangs have also prevented several concerts and plays from taking place.

In June, Salafists broke into an art gallery in a Tunis suburb and vandalised artworks after two of the paintings on display were deemed anti-Islamic.

The pieces included a depiction by Nadia Jelassi of two veiled women set among stones and an installation by Mohamed Ben Salem that showed a line of ants spelling out "Subhan Allah" (Glory to God). The art gallery has since been closed by the Government.

Last month, a French politician holidaying in Bizerta in northwestern Tunisia drew huge headlines in France after he was set upon by a mob of sword-wielding Salafists angered by his wife and daughter's summer clothes.

"I saw they were looking at them [his wife and daughter] with hate because of their summer clothes, even though there was nothing provocative about them [the clothes]," Jamel Gharbi, a Socialist regional councillor, told journalists.

"They told us we were in an Islamist country and I quickly understood things were going to degenerate. I cried out to my wife and daughter to run. They then pounced on me and struck me with their fists, feet and sticks."

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius condemned the attack as unacceptable and Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, who was born in Tunisia, condemned the "cowardly, despicable act by an extremist minority" as an "attack on Tunisia's values".

The same evening, Salafists attacked festival goers in Bizerta with knives and sticks, injuring five.

The Tunisian tourism authorities are aghast. The attacks have undermined an expensive campaign of TV, magazine and poster ads in France, the biggest single source of foreign visitors, accounting for 1.4 million arrivals in the benchmark year of 2010.

With the strapline "Tunisia: all dreams are possible", the ads pitch for the high end of the French market, seeking to lure back the bo-bo (bourgeois bohemian) class with images of sailing, cultural treasures, delicious food, a stunning Saharan landscape and a curious, open-minded population.

Tunisian Tourism Minister Elyes Fakhfahk, on a visit to Paris, said the Salafist issue was real but overblown.

"There are around 10,000 Salafists in Tunisia but there are only a few hundred of them who are jihadists. You know, there are more Salafists in France than in Tunisia."

- NZ Herald

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