Two years after the fall of Ben Ali, Tunisia’s reputation as a tourist destination has changed. While bookings for traditional seaside resorts go down, the capital Tunis has established itself as a new destination for conferences in the region.
A waiter with a heavily laden tray tries to find his way through the crowded room, some newly arrived guests exchange business cards. More than 200 journalists, bloggers, lawyers and students meet this morning in the large conference room of the Hotel Africa, located at the Avenue Habib Bourguiba in downtown Tunis, to discuss the future of Tunisia’s media landscape. In the room next door, a Tunisian security company is preparing the presentation of a new product; one floor below the staff of a newly established NGO has a meeting.
“This is just a normal Wednesday morning for us,” Aya Ben Othmane, Hotel Africa’s Marketing Director, says smiling as she walks through the lobby of the five-star property. “On weekdays, our meeting and conference rooms are almost fully booked.”
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Like most hotels in the Tunisian capital, the Hotel Africa has been recording increasing numbers during the last two years; in March 2013 alone there were four major international conferences held in Tunis. The World Social Forum, which attracted 50,000 visitors from over 125 countries, was by far the biggest event and brought the hotels in the Tunisian capital to the edge of their capacity.
On the Tunisian Mediterranean coast and on the island of Djerba the situation is very different. The tourism industry saw a recovery in 2012, but recent events such as the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid on February 6, lead once again to massive declines in booking. According to the Tunisian Association of Travel Agencies, around 60 percent of booked trips to resorts like Hammameth, Sousse and Monastir were cancelled or rescheduled immediately after Belaid’s assassination. During the first three months of 2013, the number of bookings went down by more than 7 percent compared to the same period last year. This mainly affects the places on the coast, but inland destinations also suffer from the dwindling number of guests.
However, the capital has benefited from Tunisia’s new image. “Tunis is currently one of the most exciting and best locations in the Arab world for political and social discussion,” says Taufiq Rahim, one of the organizers of the annual Harvard Arab Alumni World Conference, which was held this year at The Residence Hotel, a 30 minutes-ride from the city centre.
“Tourist logistics and infrastructure are well developed in Tunisia, the country is easily accessible from both Europe and the Arab world, and there are excellent hotels where conferences like this can be held,” explains Rahim, adding that the symbolic value played an important role as well. “In Tunisia, the Arab Spring began. Where, if not here, should we discuss the future of the Arab world?”
Aya Ben Othmane from Hotel Africa already knows this argument very well.
“After the revolution, many new NGOs were established in Tunisia, which often hold their meetings in our house. We also frequently organize international conferences on political issues, very often related to the region’s development and its future after the Arab Spring.”
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Due to its location at the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the center of demonstrations during the Jasmine Revolution, as well as its proximity to the Tunisian Ministry of Interior, the hotel itself has a special symbolism.
“During the protests in spring 2011, many journalists chose to stay in our hotel because of its proximity to the most important events,” says Ben Othmane.
Even these days, almost every week protests are held in front of the hotel and the Ministry of Interior. Mid-March, about 3,000 people gathered to call for the full investigation of the assassination of politician Chokri Belaid. But there were never any serious events in the hotel.
“When there are protests, we increase our security measures, so that there is no danger for our guests and the operation can proceed as normal,” says Ben Othmane. In general, protests in Tunis run much more peacefully and calm than in Cairo. According to Ben Othmane, violent clashes like those in January, when the lobby of the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo was devastated, have not occurred in Tunis during the last two years.
The growing importance of the conference-tourism could help in the long term to strengthen Tunisia’s image as a safe destination, hopes Ben Othmane. This hope is shared by Taufiq Rahim.
“Two years ago, the Tunisians proved so much courage and now they have to fight huge economic problems,” he says. “A revival of tourism will help to stabilize the economy – and if our conference can help revitalizing the tourism sector, we would be happy.”
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