Tunisia was considered one of Africa’s safest countries a mere decade ago, but the advent of the Arab Spring, which began in this Mediterranean country, changed everything.
Nonetheless, it remains an incredible destination. The tourist dollar will also likely play a key role in solving the country’s economic challenges.
Visitor numbers fell and investors shied away in the years following the ‘Jasmine revolution’. The authorities, suffering with persistent instability and falling revenues, also found it harder and harder to contain the very worrying trend in militancy that was establishing itself in some of the rural parts of the country. With that trend came the worrying spectre of radical Islamist terrorism.
Eventually, with the almost inevitable terrorist attacks that killed dozens of European nationals in Tunis and Sousse in 2015, the death knell was seemingly sounded for the tourist industry.
The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) subsequently advised against all but essential travel to the country, which not only deterred would-be visitors, but also had the very serious implication of invalidating the travel insurance for many people covered under normal policies.
Holidaymakers simply stopped visiting the country.
For two years hotels sat empty and the unemployment rate rose. Meanwhile, amid public demonstrations and parliamentary debates the government collapsed on several occasions, slowing the pace of much-needed reform.
In 2017 conditions appeared to be improving once again. The FCO altered its advice, warning against travel only to certain southern and eastern parts of the country, along the borders with Algeria and Libya. This allowed for insured tourism to begin again, although warnings persisted that more terrorist attacks could take place.
The number of returning tourists remained understandably slow, but just days into 2018, popular tour guide company TUI confirmed its return to the country, with the intent of bringing thousands of British tourists back to the resorts they enjoyed before 2015. Finally, there was hope that the industry and wider country was about to receive a positive boost.
However, apparently under pressure from its creditors, the government tried to pass a controversial financial bill around the same time, aimed at maintaining its current course of austerity for another year. The public were sceptical, not to mention weary of prolonged conditions of economic hardship and demonstrations, some of which turned violent, took place in towns and cities across the country.
At the time of writing they appear to have mostly died down, but they could flare up again this year, not least around the municipal elections due to take place in May.
What does this mean for travellers still intent on visiting or returning to the country. For the hundreds of tourists who loved their previous trips and lamented their inability to return over recent years, the alteration of the FCO advice alone means that you can at least obtain the relevant insurance cover.
Accommodation is plentiful and local staff will likely be more than happy to see tourists return. Security measures have been bolstered but it will help to check in advance.
For those who prefer to blend in, consider staying at a family-run guesthouse rather than a very visible hotel.
Avoid well-known tourist spots such as museums and galleries during peak hours. Go when it’s quiet, more pleasant, and ultimately less likely to be targeted.
If you really want to keep a low-profile, dress conservatively in public. Think Parisian: wear fashionable, muted colours without showing off too much excess skin.
Consider sunbathing in private rather than on public beaches as well.
In general, take the same sensible steps you would in any city. Don’t walk around with handbags or rucksacks open, and don’t show off any valuables either.
Otherwise, take comfort that in Tunisia, the crime rate is low, taxis are reliable and foreigners don’t get hassled in the street.
Furthermore, the risk of terrorist attack is comparable to most of Europe, while many of you will likely be able to share sympathies with the latest demonstrators. Tunisians want good quality of life like the rest of us.