Tunisian Government's Islamic Decisions Bruise Travel Season

Tunisian authorities are grappling with a continually depressed tourism market. A police crackdown on establishments serving food during Ramadan did not help the situation, writes Dorra Megdiche Meziou. Alcohol was also banned on Tunisair and an Ennahda supporter added fuel to the fire by comparing tourism to "clandestine prostitution."

al-monitor A tourist buy some traditional souvenirs in the medina, the old city of Tunis.  Photo by REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi.

Topics covered

tunisian economy, tunisair, tourism in tunisia, tourism, ramadan, moncef marzouki

Aug 2, 2012

Since coming to power, the moderate Islamist Ennahda Movement has not made clear and astute decisions. The tourism industry is probably the sector that has suffered the most from the consequences of Ennahda’s choices. This year, and for the first time, the Troika (the tripartite ruling coalition in Tunisia) controls the tourist season, posing an additional challenge to the new government. However, specific failures and mistakes show that the tourism sector is going through a rough patch and its troubles are far from over. What is happening in the month of Ramadan could constitute a turning point.

According to the figures released by the Tunisian government, revenues from tourism in Tunisia increased by 36% during the first half of 2012, in comparison to the same period in 2011. However, tourism is still far below pre-revolution levels, but the government hopes to return to these levels by next year. However, is tourism really on the road to recovery?

A police raid, carried out on the first day of the holy month, on restaurants and coffee shops popular with tourists in the Ennasr district is certainly the first of its kind. Fasting and abstention from alcohol have always been observed in public places during Ramadan. However, this time, the raid and the closure of restaurants and coffee shops constitute an unprecedented event in the history of Tunisian tourism. It is not important whether or not such places are frequented by non-Muslim tourists, the message is clear, those who do not fast are in every way unwelcome here.

In addition, Ennahda has adopted another measure during Ramadan. Serving alcohol on board Tunisair flights is now prohibited. Tunisair is seriously affected and the tourist season has not yet confirmed signs of recovery noticed in May and June. Tunisair’s situation is extremely worrying, particularly in light of the grave upheavals the national company experienced and is still unable to overcome. Banning alcohol Tunisair flights during the holy month does not assist in the recovery of tourism. Official reasons behind this resolution were not announced, however, given the date of issuance (the first of Ramadan) the message is quite clear. It is reasonable for us to want to know the reasons behind this measure, especially considering that most Arab airlines do not prohibit alcohol on board their flights. Are we becoming more Islamist than Muslim?

However, the best part is yet to come. An intellectual and philosopher — considered a staunch supporter of the Ennahda Movement — has just issued a troubling and unexpected statement, which is detrimental to the tourism industry. Abou Yaareb El Marzouki stated: “Tourism is similar to clandestine prostitution.”

This statement elicited hostile reactions from the tourism industry’s leading professionals. One industry professional remarked: “This is a severe, unjust and insulting claim that is indicative of a total ignorance of the realities of tourism, which Marzouki probably envisions according to his fantasies. Such a claim seriously affects the 400,000 people who make their living from this industry and represent 10% of the Tunisian workforce. The children of these workers will find it hard to identify their father, mother or brother as a panderer or pimp!” President of the National League of Tour Operators, Mohamed Ali Toumi, has called upon employees and employers in the tourism industry to lodge a complaint against Marzouki and demand an apology.

Minister of Tourism, Elyes Fakhfakh, reacted timidly to Marzouki’s statements, saying that such comments involve no one but the speaker. There is no doubt that Fakhfakh’s reaction was more about submission to Ennahda than trying to maintain government consensus. Fakhfakh’s reaction lacks, however, eloquence in comparison to Marzouki’s grave statements.

It is worth noting that such statements were not issued by coincidence. In fact, they were aimed at diverting public attention away from more serious problems facing Tunisians, as well as serving to lay the foundation for the transformation process Ennahda has planned for Tunisian society. However, whenever Ennahda threatens to cross the red line, the outcry from those in the civil society sector presents an obstacle for this transformation.

Whether Marzouki’s libelous statements were targeting professionals in the tourism industry or just average employees, the unified response compelled him to justify his claims. Marzouki said that he was very surprised his statements had caused such a stir, and went on to say that his words were taken out of context and he was just referring to tourism in Thailand not in Tunisia!

Despite statements and initiatives from various individuals, Ennahda’s general policy takes a totally different approach toward the tourism industry. In its 365-point program, Ennahda adopted eight measures related to the tourism industry. In item 165, Ennahda called upon all stakeholders in the tourism sector to adopt a strategy that will promote tourism. Talk of strategies, measures and goals sounds quite interesting, but are we really achieving these goals or are we living a different reality? It seems that the movement’s program is something totally different from the reality.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Dorra Megdiche Meziou