(eTN) – In an interview with Tunisian minister of tourism S.E. Khelil Lajimi, he suggested incoming markets are faring quite well. In the first half of 2006, Tunisia received 6.5 million inbound tourists; with its market split in two, 4 million came from Europe and 2.5 million the Maghreb states mainly Algeria and Libya. In 2007, arrivals in the last 10 months increased by an additional 3 percent over 2006.
One main concern in Tunisia is the German market which it lost in large numbers. France, Germany, Italy and the UK make up the four main traditional markets. After the tragic incidents in 2001 and 2002, Tunisia lost half a million German tourists. “After the 2002 events, we lost the Germans to Croatia, Morocco, Turkey, Greece and Egypt – our biggest competitors,” he said. However, this number has been replaced primarily by Eastern European markets such as Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria. From 2003 to 2004, it regained traffic after the 9-11 downturn.
To recover, the government has adopted a new strategy employing its top industry locomotive of beach-tourism, attracting 80 to 90 percent of tourists. “With the strategy presented to the government in 2007, we clearly look to develop new niche markets with lots of added-value products built into new packages such as Sahara safari, thalassotherapy (in which Tunisia now ranks second to France as destination in the world), cultural tourism, golf tourism (with 250,000 green fees per year and further building 5 new courses in a stretch of 5 years, meaning one course per year) coming online. We need to develop new niches with a competitive advantage not only to stretch the numbers, as seen lately in 2007 when Tunisia welcomed over 6.8 million guests – a feat for a country with only 10 million inhabitants,” the minister said.
Spanish tourists go on holiday in Spain and France. “Somehow, we have been receiving 150,000 of them – 55 percent of whom prefer the Sahara. This is a new market for us. In Switzerland, the Swiss’ number one market is thalasso. Since Switzerland is under one-and-a-quarter hours by flight from Tunis, we’ve developed short break trips: either one long weekend or another with one day golf and one day thalassotherapy. We are expanding this new niche within the same old markets. Similarly, we’re launching new direct flights from Montreal, Canada next spring and new incoming flights from North America. We’ve opened our office in Beijing; however we still don’t have direct flights. Our main market remains Europe with new niches created within the existing circles,” Lajimi said.
With new budget airline Seven Air, the approach is to spread the low-cost operation across specialized short flights of less than an hour (such as to/from Tripoli, Malta, Palermo)and energy-efficient turbo-props, short-hauls only. Currently, Lajimi is negotiating with Europe to extend the free trade agreement to services, including air transportation. “We seek to adapt different strategies with our partners, opening unilaterally our skies to low-cost on a negotiation basis because Tunisia has a competitive advantage – its well-educated people. We’ve also given licenses to the French airlines, to Ryan Air for double touch-downs, and quite possible Easy Jet, if the department of transport can validate this demand by Easy Jet,” he said.
Today, the minister is also developing Tuser in the south, as gateway to the Sahara. “We’re developing this strategy in Saharan tourism. We will take advantage of low-cost with this segment. We have foreign investment companies in tourism, new niches in our markets, added-value products, high-quality tourism, as well as international brands such as the new Abu Nawass Tunis in the capital. It was recently sold through an international tender to Libyan investors, and was completely re-fitted to be managed as a hotel by an international bank,” he said.
Three years ago, Tunisia began selling real estate in tourist areas to foreign investors as a new regulation was introduced. Lajimi explained the incentive also covers residential, commercial properties/new hotels, international investment key services and specialized or industrial zones. Foreign investors buying in regional development zones, away from coastal zones have been “incentivized.” However, when they invest on the coast, their tax cuts are removed. They remain on equal footing with their Tunisian counterparts, paying taxes and other dues.
“Thus far, we have 9,000 technical cooperation with friendly nations outside Tunisia, including the sub-Saharan countries and the Gulf States. With the internet boom, a lot of Tunisian engineers moved to Europe; today, we have foreign companies looking for human resources here. Suffice to say, we have enough capacity to train the youth with six of our training centers under the umbrella of the tourism authority. We graduate 3000 tourism students per year, enough to supply the labor force in Tunisia, and export to Libya and Algeria,” he said.
While the internet has revolutionized the global market with tour operators selling online, the consumer has only become the independent producer – packaging his own holiday, buying and seeking bargains via the web. “However, Tunisia’s market has been protected from the new technology. We don’t subscribe to open, low-cost markets. You have to buy tickets through regular vendors, book along regular lines. We found out our buyers find better packages when booking through tour operators. We’ve launched a new study encouraging one lodge chain to build up their own platform to use GDS to sell packages, the traditional way not via the net,” Lajimi said.
What remains on his agenda is one main challenge, said the minister adding, “We’d get more revenues from tourism by introducing new niches to products with added-value. We have to create new attractions to our neighboring guests such as the 2.5 million coming from Libya and Algeria. They want residential not beach tourism. Their needs need to be met to generate profitable revenue streams, while family tourism remains high with the Algerians, medical tourism with the Libyans and aesthetic surgery/ health tourism with the Central Europeans.”