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Just a passing shock?

Tunisia and Morocco both set great store by their ability to attract hard currency from the tourist industry. Like Egypt, however, they are discovering to their cost that tourism is highly vulnerable to upheavals in the region and the perceived threat from militant Islam. Alfred Hermida in Tunis surveys the volatile state of the tourism business.

AS A REFLECTION of the importance North African governments attach to the tourism industry, Morocco has launched a three-year multi-million dollar advertising campaign to promote the country as a holiday destination. Tourism accounts for more than 10% of Morocco's foreign currency earnings. The industry generates several hundred thousand jobs directly and many more through secondary industries, such as handicrafts, not to mention the thousands of unofficial guides who hound tourists in the major cities.

The picture is similar in Tunisia. Last year the country earned more than one billion dollars from the four million visitors to the country. This accounted for 20% of Tunisia's foreign revenue and offers work for some 200,000 people directly and thousands more indirectly. Many unemployed young men, known locally as "beznessa", spend the summer months in the beach resorts of Hammamet and Sousse, offering their (sometimes dubious) services to foreign visitors.

Both Tunisia and Morocco regard tourism as playing a key role in their economic development. Algeria has only recently latched onto the tourism bandwagon, after seeing the success of its neighbors. North African countries are now trying to stimulate the industry by offering low interest rates for loans to invest in tourist projects, and many products linked to the industry are exempt from taxes.

Morocco and Tunisia have also tried to diversify the industry, moving beyond low-cost package tours aimed at Europeans in search of sun, sea and sand. One special interest group targeted by both countries is golf enthusiasts. Many luxury hotels in Morocco offer golfing facilities which are comparable to the best in Europe, or lay on special transport to nearby links. Tunisia is following suit, by improving existing golf courses and building new ones at holiday resorts such as Tabarka in the northwest of the country.

Tunisia also hopes to increase tourism by opening up the south to foreign visitors. Although only the outskirts of the Sahara are within Tunisia's borders, the desert is easily accessible and four new luxury hotels are being built in the oasis town of Tozeur to meet demand.

However, Tunisia and Morocco have learnt the hard way that tourism is built on fragile foundations. A slight tremor in one part of the Arab world can bring the whole regional tourism industry tumbling down. The Gulf war had a devastating effect on tourism in North Africa, even though the region was thousands of miles away from the war zone. 1991 was a disastrous season for Tunisia, which relies heavily on the foreign visitors. The government's ambiguous position towards Iraq, and a few isolated pro-Saddam Hussein demonstrations led thousands of European tourists to cancel their bookings. Visitors fell by a third, hotels were only a quarter full, and revenue was down by a fifth.

Morocco was equally badly hit. In February 1991, at the height of the Gulf War, hotels in Marrakesh were only 9% full. In the words of the Moroccan tourism minister, Abdullah Khediri, it was a "tough test" for the industry. After the war, Khediri initiated a series of contacts with European tour operators to relaunch the tourist industry.

1992 was marked by a remarkable comeback for the tourist industry in both Morocco and Tunisia. This was in part due to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, since many Europeans who would normally have taken their holidays there went to Morocco or Tunisia instead. But now the new danger facing the tourism industry in North Africa is the rise of militant Islamic fundamentalist movements. The example of Egypt has shown how a few well-placed bombs can mean a large dent in tourism receipts.

Tunisia faced a similar threat in 1987, when there was a series of attacks on hotels in the seaside resorts of Monastir and Sousse during the peak month of August. About a dozen British and Italian tourists were injured in the attacks, which were blamed on Islamic fundamentalists. But the Tunisian authorities nipped the threat in the bud by cracking down hard on the fundamentalist movement. "It was fortunately just a passing shock," said a tourism official.

The Tunisian authorities are constantly on the alert to crush any signs of fundamentalist sympathies. When last December an imam called for an end to the thousands of scantily-clad tourists who flock to Tunisia's beaches every year, he was promptly sacked. The incident was reported only in the Arabic press and not in the French language newspapers, to avoid publicising the incident in European circles.

The present worry for Tunisia and Morocco is the Islamic fundamentalist violence in Algeria. The daily gun battles between the security forces and Islamic radicals have undermined any attempts by the Algerian government to promote tourism. Neighbouring governments are concerned that the violence may tarnish the image of their own countries. At the same time, the emergence of an Islamic government in Algeria would undoubtedly have significant repercussions on Tunisia and Morocco. The tourism industry would be the first to suffer, with Europeans labelling the whole area as dangerous.
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Title Annotation:tourism in Tunisia and Morocco
Author:Hermida, Alfred
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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