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Geopolitics

Fancy A Spring Break In Tunisia?

Post-revolutionary tourism in Tunisia? Deserted beaches and empty restaurants amid the debris of the uprising, as resorts try to convince tourists the country is safe.

Tunisian beach (Henning Leweke)

HAMMAMET - "It's wonderful, absolutely wonderful," says 61-year-old Bruno Perrin. He still cannot believe his luck. He originally signed up for a special "economic crisis' budget deal to relax by the water. Instead he's enjoying "post-revolutionary tourism" on the beaches of Hammamet. Sitting at the Sultan Hotel's empty bar, this hardcore fan of Tunisia doesn't regret ignoring French embassy advisories to "postpone all non-urgent travel."

After checking out the cartoons lampooning deposed president Ben Ali in La Presse, the ex-regime's mouthpiece-turned-independent newspaper, Perrin sets off on an unusual sightseeing tour: a poke around the villa of the former dictator's brother-in-law Belhassen Trabelsi, or what's left of it. He snaps away with his digital camera, capturing graffiti-covered walls, bare electric wires ripped out of crystal chandeliers, broken windows. Seeing the pictures, an employee back at the Sultan Hotel rejoices. "These people got what they deserved! Belhassen was a thief. He took big chunks of the shore. I think we should turn his house into a museum."

Getting tourists' trust back

The hotel's immaculately dressed vice-president, Mehdi Allani, shares his employee's reaction. "The Trabelsi mafia was so strong you couldn't get around them. If you were a successful businessman, they would take part of your earnings. If you refused, your taxes were adjusted. In order to import certain types of alcohol or even Parmesan, you had to go through one of the clan's members. It was exhausting. It killed business initiative," says the successful 30-year-old, who takes pride in never having hung Ben Ali's portrait in the hotel lobby. Now that the president's gone, Allani is brimming with tourism business ambitions. "Before, tourists came to lie on the beach and rarely made it out of the resorts. In the future, I hope we'll be able to highlight our archeological sites, create new cultural activities, open new restaurants," he says, adding the now-famous slogan of the new Tunisian Central Bank governor Mustafa Kamel Nabl: "Democracy is a good investment."

But for now, Allani faces a greater challenge: that of regaining the tourists' trust and filling his hotel rooms. Right now, he only has 25 guests. "The day after Ben Ali's departure, on January 14, 80 percent of reservations made for April, May and June were cancelled," he says. It will be hard to convince tourists back until two major conditions are met: security and efficient transportation. Even though the renewed tensions haven't reached as far as Hammamet, a sort of safe haven just an hour away from Tunis, security on the roads is not guaranteed.

Lifting the state of emergency

Even the Interior Minister Farhat Rajhi admits that thousands of prisoners, who fled their cells during the uprising, are still running free. Airlines are still working on day-to-day schedules. Last Monday, an Air France pilot made a U-turn, just as he was about to land in Tunis, citing "protests' on the ground as the reason.

The new Tourism Minister, Mehdi Houas tries to be reassuring. In the face of a 40 percent drop in last month's numbers compared to January 2010, he insists on the need to "reassure tour operators on security in the country and engage in a strong marketing campaign." To this end, the interim government this week plans to lift the state of emergency and ease the midnight curfew. A delegation of French airline and tour-operator companies is also due in Tunis.

The CEO of France's second biggest tour operator Fram, Antoine Cachin, has already paid a visit and says he is "completely ready to support the revival of Tunisian tourism." A revival that is crucial for the country's economy: tourism covers 60 percent of the trade balance deficit and represents 6.5 percent of GDP. In a population of 10 million people, it also accounts for 350,000 jobs. "Things are very, very slow right now," says Hassib Abbes, the manager of popular Hammamet restaurant La Terrasse. "My 32 employees are worried. If we miss the spring season, it will hurt us a lot."

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Photo of a crowded street in Hyderabad, India

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-Analysis-

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