RESPONSIBLE TOURISM IN TUNISIA

Mediterranean beaches, affordable accommodation and long hot summers all add up to three things – money, money, money. But not for the people of Tunisia. Foreign tourist companies own the airlines, the hotels, the ground agents and the all-inclusive international buffet restaurants. This has not only isolated local people but led to widespread unemployment and poor living standards.

Keeping foreign tourists in all-inclusive enclaves makes sure they don’t spend their vacation dinars elsewhere. From the owners of small guesthouses to market traders in the souks, local people have been continuously kept apart from tourists and tourists have been ‘shielded’ from traditional North African culture.

Precious water supplies have also been used for private swimming pools and on an industrial scale in high-rise hotels. This is a country that sits on the Med but also stretches into the Atlas Mountains, to the east, and the Sahara, down south. Like everywhere, Tunisia’s getting hotter and drier. Ground water supplies still exist but there's not an infinite supply and they will eventually dry up.

Tunisia is a Muslim majority country, Arabic is the first language. French is also widely spoken thanks to 75 years of French colonisation. Education is very important to Tunisians; the adult literacy rate is high. Being hospitable to foreign guests and people of other religions is extremely important. Only by visiting for yourself and meeting local people will you discover the reality behind the headlines.
We in Tunisia have no problem with respecting other people's religion, and we have a long tradition of that.
– Tunisian politician, Rached Ghannouchi

PEOPLE & CULTURE

Following independence from the French in 1956, Tunisia was run by a series of corrupt and greedy officials. The country’s coffers were spent on lavish shopping trips, mega yachts and flights to Europe in the state’s private jet. The coupling of an oppressive, ostentatious regime and huge disparity in income levels, meant that something in Tunisia had to give; and in 2010, it did.

Anti-government protesters took to the streets whilst social media galvanised young Tunisians to action and showed the whole world what can happen if governments ignore perpetually poor living standards. Tunisia’s push for democracy, and the start of the ‘Arab Spring’, had begun. It led to Tunisia in 2019 becoming the first free Arab country for more than 40 years and North Africa’s only democratic state.

It’s still early days for the country’s fledgling democracy; only time will tell whether the rise of right wing Islamic groups will play their part in overturning newly introduced legislation, particularly where women’s and children’s rights are concerned. The Tunisian parliament currently has the highest female contingent (30%) within the Arab world. However, there’s still a long way to go, particularly where social and legal changes to sexual and gender based violence are concerned.
Sadly, during this timeframe, in 2015, Tunisia hit the headlines again with one of the most shocking events in the country’s most recent history.
The terrorist attacks of June 2015 shocked the world. Global media coverage escalated the perceived threat and turned tourists away in their droves. Airlines dramatically reduced their quota as Tunisia turned from ‘hidden gem’ to 'no go', practically overnight.
This was a country that boasted some of the best beaches in the Med as well as affordable accommodation and far fewer crowds when compared to its European counterparts. It still does, in fact more so, as well as Roman archaeological sites that are easily comparable to what you'll find in Greece, Egypt and Rome.
Tanner C. Knorr is the owner and founder of our Tunisia tour specialists, Off Season Adventures & Safaris: “Compared to many of the other countries in the region, Tunisia is actually quite well developed and very welcoming to tourists. There’s lots going on; from Mediterranean beaches and desert safaris to some of the world’s most intact ancient mosaics and uncrowded UNESCO sites.”
Five years on and the sensationalist media headlines have died down, airlines have reopened their flights, and it's even rumoured that the USA are considering flying direct to Tunisia – time will tell. But the tourism industry needs to change. Local people need to be allowed to benefit from the presence of tourists, and tourists need to seek out new places and embrace local culture.

Perhaps, the stigma attached to Tunisia is going to take generations before it finally fades. However, writing off the Tunisian people is not something that anyone should advise lightly. In the words of the country’s first president and reformist, Habib Bourguiba, “Tunisia is always ready to turn the page.”
What you can do to help
Travel with a local guide and driver. Guides act as translators so you can learn more about the real Tunisia. They’ll introduce you to other local guides who are specialists in ancient cultural history.

Stay at small locally owned guesthouses in out of the way locations; eat out at locally owned restaurants with just a phrasebook and a smile; haggle in the souks and support smaller cottage industries – our tours often visit a local family in Sejnane who make their own pottery – rather than opting for tacky imported souvenirs.

This is the only way to ensure your presence is making a difference to local people and ensuring you have an authentic experience that goes way beyond simply sun, sea and shisha pipes.

Breaking down barriers

English isn’t widely spoken in Tunisia outside of the all-inclusive beach resorts and restaurants on the coast. The French occupied here for a long time and French is still the country’s second language, behind Arabic. That's part of the reason that Canadians tend to favour Tunisia over European alternatives. If you can parlez francais then you'll be well away, if not, travel with a local guide who can. They'll probably also be able to speak English and German, as well as Arabic, of course.
As a Muslim majority country it's important that travelers respect local customs and go out of their way to have an authentic North African experience as opposed to a homogenized vacation. Everyone is very grateful for visitors; and guesthouse and restaurant staff are super friendly. You'll be made to feel very welcome. Local people take pride in the appearance of the streets and doorways. You won’t find rubbish piled up on street corners or anything like that. It’s very clean and safe.
There are a few ‘no go’ areas for travelers, especially close to the border with Libya, but if you’re traveling with a guide and following a tailor made itinerary you’re simply not going to go anywhere near these places. Also, some events and rallies in Tunis, and other major cities, are best avoided but the in-country tour company will know which areas to avoid and when.
In fact, it’s far better to stay outside the capital, on the outskirts, somewhere like Sidi Bou Said. Not because Tunis is dangerous, necessarily, but because you'll have a much more characterful experience. Sidi Bou Said is where whitewashed Grecian walls, decorative wooden doors and blue window shutters entice you into using your entire camera film in an afternoon of arty vacation snaps.
What you can do to help
Learning a little bit of the local language will go a long way. English is not the first language and just because you repeat a sentence with more volume won't make it any more likely that you'll be understood. You will find information signs in English, however, at many of the UNESCO sites and in the larger museums, like the Bardo in Tunis.

Dig out your old French textbooks and get in some practise before you go. If you're feeling brave then why not try to learn a little Arabic? Who knows, you might even get an even better bargain if you haggle in the local lingo. Traveling with a local guide and being shown the key sites with a local expert is always advised but you'll get in what you give out. Be brave, ask questions, and don't forget your French phrasebook. Bonne chance mon amis!

Enclave tourism

If you're thinking of coming to Tunisia and staying in an all-inclusive hotel with a swimming pool and buffet restaurant then you might as well go to Benidorm. You'll be able to get British newspapers, all day English breakfasts and everyone will speak English.

Enclave tourism in Tunisia keeps the tourists and the local people apart. And there's a reason for it. Money. Foreign vacation companies want to keep your hard earned vacation dinars from going anywhere other than their share holders. Just the thought of you spending money anywhere other than one of the purpose-built high-rise resorts will send shivers down a chief executive’s spine.

Locations like Hammamet, Sousse and Port El Kantaoui, have long established all-inclusive hotels with drinks, meals and sunset selfies included in the price. All you have to do is fly and flop and let your UK vacation rep take care of your every need. There's no need to ever leave. Mawhahahaha. And if you do venture beyond your gilded cage, you'll be packed onto a coach shown round a UNESCO site and packed back on again before you've even had a chance to whisper: “Où sont les toilettes?”
What you can do to help
If you want to experience the real Tunisia then you've got to escape the enclaves and meet the local people. Get away from the touristy areas on certain parts of the coast. If you've never witnessed a mountain oasis appearing over the brow of a sand dune then this is your chance; if you've always wondered what sleeping in a tree house built into the fronds of a date tree plantation was like then what are you waiting for? Traveling across Tunisia with local guides and a local driver is the best way to get a true picture of a country that's attempting to rebuild its tourist industry, in the right way.

WILDLIFE & ENVIRONMENT

Water worries

It’s not always safe to drink the tap water in Tunisia. There’s a big fuss made when it is ok, so you’ll know. There are some ground water supplies in towns like Tozeur and on Djerba Island but these aren’t for drinking and they aren't infinite either; at some point they’re simply going to cease to exist.

Plastic bottles are still widely distributed to tourists, hotel gardens are kept green with constant watering and swimming pools are topped up and kept clean to cope with continuous demand for five-star European-style standards.

Elsewhere, it’s one of Tunisia’s most profitable exports, dates, which are bleeding the country’s natural water supplies dry. Date palm trees require lots and lots of water to keep producing fruit and a lack of water means low-quality, shrivelled dates. Irrigation systems are coming under increasing pressure to keep up with demand.
Desert communities have lived in southern Tunisia for years and years and made a living in an area renowned for its heat and arid conditions. It used to be that temperatures would start to drop after August and be almost comfortable approaching the end of September. However, due to climate change, the searing Saharan temperatures persist even into October and November, which is bad news for farmers who need the natural water sources, and a good date harvest, to survive.
Illegally drilled wells are appearing across the arid landscapes as desperate farmers take matters into their own hands. New sources of water are found hundreds of metres below the ground and are simply not sustainable. Man-made oases are popping up everywhere but overexploited and eroded soil conditions are extremely poor. Help is coming via the World Food Bank project that was launched in 2014 to improve irrigation and soil, and supply farmers with seeds for alternative fruit orchards and vegetables. But time is running out. Global heating is a very real and immediate threat and it may not be long until Tunisia’s natural mountain oases and date industry run completely dry.
What you can do to help
Ask your tour operators what they're doing to curb plastic consumption and preserve water supplies. Often there won't be any other alternative than a plastic water bottle so find out where you can recycle it at the end of your trip. Choose a small guesthouse that doesn't have a pool and has taken steps to prevent water being wasted. The Mediterranean is always a much better alternative to swimming in a pool – water in North Africa is a precious commodity. Please remember to use water wisely.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: McKay Savage] [People and culture: David Stanley] [Breaking down barriers: David Stanley] [Desert: Dennis Jarvis]
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