The beach promenade along the city of Hammamet in Tunisia is deserted. Kais Azzabi, 42, looks out over the bright, empty coast from his souvenir shop and describes the crowds strolling along the wide boulevards. Nobody is there today.
“There was a lot going on here,” he says, pointing to the street and the Mediterranean Sea beyond. “Everything stopped since Corona started.”
Blasted by revolutions, terrorist attacks and political instability, the pandemic has almost dealt a death blow to Tunisia’s contested tourism sector, a former economic factor. Many of his employees are now on the other side of the sea looking for opportunities to build a new life in Europe.
Outside the resorts, recent political events have done little to instill confidence among hotel employees. A seizure of power by the president in July, which suspended parliament, deposed the head of government (prime minister) and put in office the former constitutional lawyer and politically independent Kais Saied, has yet to deliver a new long-term vision for the country.
Amine *, 20, is sitting on the empty beach in front of one of the resort’s imposing white hotels. The lifeguard from nearby Tazerka pushes a half-dead fish around a bucket while his friend wades into a lively sea in search of more.
“There used to be a few Tunisian guests here, but now it’s dead,” he says through an interpreter and looks at the empty beach huts and stacks of unused loungers. “My future lies overseas,” he says, and it remains vague how he could get there. “All my friends are gone [to Europe], “he says.” Tazerka is empty. All the surrounding cities are empty. Everyone has gone. “
In August, the arrivals of migrants from Tunisia in Italy rose by about 75% on the previous year. According to the International Organization for Migration, this was “the highest number of departures since the aftermath of the 2011 revolution”. These included 502 unaccompanied minors and a further 138 traveling with at least one family member, suggesting that the relocations were not temporary.
In another part of Tazerka, Ramzi, 20, sells melons from the back of his father’s truck on the side of the road. Every day he travels 150 km (90 miles) from Kairouan with his father and cousins to sell fruit. They can only do this in the summer months, survive the winter with what they have saved in the tourist season, or from the occasional work his father can find building. Covid-19 has made a desperate situation worse, says Ramzi’s father Nouredinne.
“I just want to go to Europe,” says Ramzi. “I’ve wanted to go there for five or ten years.” One of his cousins, Wassim, yells over that since he was a child he had had no other goal than to come to Europe.
The only thing stopping them is money. “You need around 3,500 TD [Tunisian dinar]but that’s risky. If you have more, it’s safer, ”says Wassim through an interpreter.
While the coronavirus has hit the Tunisian economy, the tourism sector has been hit the hardest. Even before the pandemic, the country’s sprawling Identikit resorts, which rely on package tourism, were in trouble. Shaken by the 2011 revolution, a devastating terrorist attack in 2015 and subsequent travel bans, the country’s tourism sector has long since ceased to offer the security it promised in the 1960s.
“Before the pandemic, the tourism sector represented around 7% of GDP,” says economist Radhi Meddeb. “Consolidated with the secondary activities of transport, gastronomy, leisure and handicrafts, the contribution increases to 14%.”
However, he adds, “If the trends observed so far continue through the end of the year, the tourism sector’s contribution to GDP is likely to be negative, around -1 to -1.5% of GDP.”
Despite the best efforts of hoteliers, tens of thousands of jobs have been lost. Before the pandemic, more than half a million people were employed in tourism and its supporting services. Recent events, not least the travel bans imposed in response to the escalating Covid death rate in Tunisia, have paid for much of it.
Because the economy will not recover to pre-pandemic levels For some time, tourism in Tunisia will “never be what it was before the crisis,” says Meddeb Holidays, which they once made available. “The Tunisian tourism model will have to reinvent itself.”
Back on the beach, Amine continues to push his lonely, dying fish around the bucket. “You can see Pantelleria [Italian island] from my village, ”he says. When asked how to get there, he says: “I swim”.
* Full names that are not used to protect identities