A cafe stands empty in the Tunisian village of Sidi Bou Said, where streets are usually filled with tourists at this time of year. -AFP
As the novel coronavirus pandemic wipes out a recovery from jihadist attacks in 2015, Tunisia's vital tourism sector is trying to find ways to avoid going under. "Normally, the season starts now. But there is nobody," said Mohammed Saddam, who owns an antiques shop in the famous blue and white village of Sidi Bou Said, near the capital Tunis.
Usually its streets are filled with tourists at this time of year, but now Saddam is only opening his store for an hour a day to air it out.
"We are waiting for the airspace to reopen," he said. "But 2020 is a write-off." The North African country has registered 45 deaths from the COVID-19 illness, and for several days this week saw no new infections, putting it among Mediterranean countries faring relatively well in the pandemic.
But the crisis has led to a shortfall in tourism revenues of six billion dinars (over $2 billion), the country's national tourism office has estimated, and some 400,000 jobs are at risk.
The sector had been bouncing back to levels not seen since before the 2011 revolution that toppled longtime autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. "Tunisia had started off the year well, with an increase in (tourism) revenue of 28 percent," said Feriel Gadhoumi, a coordinator at the tourism office.But that all came to a halt in March as countries imposed travel restrictions and border closures to curb the spread of the pandemic.
Now, seaside resorts are empty and hoteliers are trying to salvage what they can of the season, counting on the country's relatively optimistic health situation and sector-specific virus prevention measures. While most hotels have shut for now, some are providing accommodation for people in compulsory quarantine, notably Tunisians repatriated from abroad.
The tourism ministry is preparing protocols for facilities that reopen, with some planning to do so from June. Measures are expected to include temperature checks at hotel entrances, rooms being disinfected and left empty for 48 hours between guests and the intensive cleaning of common areas.
Such steps are necessary to "regain the trust of partners", Gadhoumi from the tourism office said. The UN World Tourism Organization has warned that international tourist numbers could drop by 60 to 80 percent in 2020. The sector accounts for around 14 percent of Tunisia's GDP, according to the tourism ministry.
Other changes could include offering fixed menus instead of buffets and giving guests the same tables and umbrellas for the length of their stay, hotel sales manager Anis Souissi said.
Clients will focus "on health and hygiene", he added. But it is unclear whether hotels, some of which are already on the edge of bankruptcy, will be able to make the necessary investments.
Even before the pandemic struck, a series of crises had weakened Tunisia's tourism sector. After the political instability that followed the fall of Ben Ali, jihadist attacks in 2015 targeted European holiday-makers at the Bardo museum in Tunis and the coastal tourist resort of Sousse. The attacks killed 60 people, many of them British tourists, and dealt a heavy blow to the sector.
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