Coronavirus crisis punctures Tunisia tourism rebound

The coronavirus crisis has led to a shortfall in Tunisia’s tourism revenues of over $2 billion. (AFP)
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Updated 17 May 2020

Coronavirus crisis punctures Tunisia tourism rebound

  • North African country has registered 45 deaths from the COVID-19 illness
  • Crisis has led to a shortfall in Tunisia’s tourism revenues of six billion dinars

TUNIS: As the coronavirus pandemic wipes out a recovery from militant 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, militant 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.
The security situation has greatly improved since then, and tourist numbers last year had returned to pre-2011 levels, with 9.5 million visitors.
But the collapse in September of British tour operator Thomas Cook, which brought five percent of Tunisia’s European tourists, shook some hotels.
Thomas Cook had suspended trips to Tunisia after the attacks, but had returned in force in the last two years.
Now, the sector is searching for ways to survive, as the coronavirus crisis persists and as passenger flights from Europe, Tunisia’s main market, are expected to remain grounded for much of the summer.
Although thousands of foreigners remain stuck in the country due to border closures and flight suspensions, their presence won’t be nearly enough.
Instead, hoteliers have their eyes set on local tourists, as well as Algerian or Russian holiday-makers who helped dampen the previous crises.
But domestic tourism accounts for just 20 percent of Tunisia’s market, and many locals have seen their income and holiday allowances disappear during the lockdown.
Bringing more bad news, Algeria has been seriously affected by the pandemic and reopening its borders is not envisaged in the short term, while Russia currently has the second-highest number of reported infections in the world.
“Targeting the local market and preparing for the next season are the only choices we have,” sales manager Souissi said.


Tensions between Turkey, France pose threat to NATO alliance, warn experts

Updated 07 July 2020

Tensions between Turkey, France pose threat to NATO alliance, warn experts

  • Turkey ‘challenging’ international norms by breaking arms embargo on Libya, invading northern Syria, claims analyst

JEDDAH: Increasing tensions between France and Turkey were posing a threat to the cohesion of the NATO alliance, experts have warned.

Paris’ recent decision to suspend its involvement in the NATO Sea Guardian maritime security operation in the eastern Mediterranean following an incident between a French frigate and Turkish vessels, has highlighted the organization’s difficulties in maintaining order and harmony among its members.

Months of escalating dispute between France and Turkey came to a head on June 10, when Paris claimed that its La Fayette-class Frigate Courbet was targeted three times by Turkish Navy fire control radars while it was trying to approach a Tanzanian-flagged civilian cargo ship suspected of trafficking arms to Libya.

The cargo ship was under the escort of three Turkish vessels, but Ankara denied harassing the Courbet and demanded an apology from France for disclosing “improper information,” saying the ship in question had been carrying humanitarian aid.

The incident resulted in France pulling out of the NATO operation, partly aimed at enforcing a UN embargo on arms supplies to Libya, and accusing Turkey of importing extremists to Syria.

French President Emmanuel Macron said: “I think that it’s a historic and criminal responsibility for a country that claims to be a member of NATO. We have the right to expect more from Turkey than from Russia, given that it is a member of NATO.”

The classified report on the Courbet incident is expected to be discussed soon by member states of the alliance.

Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system has also angered some NATO members over concerns it could undermine Western defense systems and led to Turkey’s expulsion from the alliance’s F-35 stealth fighter jet program.

Seth J. Frantzman, executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, told Arab News: “NATO faces increasing challenges from its member state Turkey which behaves contrary to NATO’s mission and values.

“Turkey’s government has begun to violate international norms by breaking an arms embargo on the Libyan conflict and invading northern Syria, backing extremist groups, and bombing northern Iraq.

“Ankara has tried to strong-arm NATO into supporting it through threats to hold up a Baltic defense plan and also through threatening and insulting other NATO members.

“Turkey insinuated to the US that Turkey would brush US forces aside in Syria in 2019 if the US didn’t leave, it has escalated conflicts rather than reducing them, and threatened to send refugees to Greece while staking counter claims to the Mediterranean against Greek claims,” he added.

Frantzman pointed out that the controversy with France was a byproduct of this.

“NATO increasingly looks like it is being called upon to appease Ankara’s monthly crises that involve new military operations in several countries. Once a key and helpful ally of NATO, Turkey looks increasingly like it seeks to exploit its NATO membership, using it as a cover for military operations that undermine human rights, democracy, and international norms,” he said.

Turkey is seen as an important and strategic member of the military alliance. On its website, NATO says that all the organization’s decisions are made by consensus, following discussions and consultations among members. “When a ‘NATO decision’ is announced, it is therefore the expression of the collective will of all the sovereign states that are members of the alliance.”

However, recent disagreements within NATO led Macron to say that the alliance was “suffering brain death” over Turkey’s cross-border military offensive into northern Syria last year.

On Turkey’s unilateral behavior, Frantzman said: “This is part of a global rising authoritarian agenda but appears to be counter to the NATO mission that once ostensibly was about defending Western democracies from the Soviet totalitarian threat.

“This calls into question the overall NATO mission and whether NATO is now enabling Ankara’s authoritarian trend. NATO countries are generally afraid to challenge Turkey, thinking that without Turkey and with a US disinterested in global commitments, NATO would become a European club with an unclear future. For Russia that is good news as it supplies S-400 systems to Turkey, further eroding NATO,” he added.

Aaron Stein, director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, felt NATO would be able to manage the spat between France and Turkey.

“Libya isn’t really a NATO issue. It is out of the area for the alliance. I see this more as a bilateral dispute between two rival powers in the Mediterranean.

“What I worry more about is how NATO members, including both Turkey and France, are letting these bilateral squabbles seep into the North Atlantic Council. They should keep their fights to themselves.”