The beach of the village of Hammamet in Tunisia is deserted. From his souvenir shop, 42-year-old Kais Azzabi looks out at the bright, empty shoreline and describes the crowds that used to stroll the wide boulevards. Today there is no one.
“It was a very busy area,” he says, pointing to the street and the Mediterranean Sea beyond. “Since the pandemic started, everything stopped.”
With revolutionary outbreaks, terrorist attacks and political instability, the pandemic has dealt an almost fatal blow to the tourism industry, which was once characteristic of the local economy.
Many of his employees now want to cross the sea in search of a new life in Europe.
Beyond hotels, recent political events have not instilled confidence in hospitality workers. A bid for presidential power in July that suspended parliament, ousted the prime minister, and put Kais Said, a former law professor and independent politician, in office. He has not yet offered a long-term vision for the country.
Amin *, 20, sits on an empty beach outside one of the resort’s towering white hotels. He, a lifeguard from the nearby town of Tazerka, pushes a half-dead fish to the bottom of a bucket while his friend dives into the sea in search of more.
“There were some Tunisian visitors, but now he’s dead,” he says, through an interpreter, looking at the empty beach huts and stacks of unused loungers. “My future is abroad,” he says, without specifying how he could get there. “All my friends have gone (to Europe),” he says. “Tazerka is empty. All the nearby towns are empty. Everyone is gone.”
75% more Tunisian arrivals in Italy
In August, the arrival of migrants to Italy from Tunisia increased by 75% compared to the previous year. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), this increase represented “the largest number of departures after the effects of the 2011 revolution.” Among them were 502 unaccompanied minors, in addition to another 138 people who were traveling with at least one other member of their family, suggesting that they were not temporary transfers. So far this year, more than 11,000 Tunisians have arrived in Italy by sea.
In another part of Tazerka, 20-year-old Ramzi sells melons on the road from the cab of his father’s truck. Together with his cousins and his father, each day he travels about 150 kilometers from Kairouan to sell fruits. They can only do it during the summer months, and they survive in the winter on what they have saved during the peak season, or from the odd jobs that their father can get in construction. COVID-19 has made a desperate situation worse, says Ramzi’s father, Nouredinne.
“I just want to go to Europe,” says Ramzi. “I’ve been hoping to go for five or 10 years.” One of his cousins, Wassim, screams that his greatest wish since he was a child is to reach Europe.
The only thing stopping you is money. “You need about 3,500 Tunisian dinars, but it’s risky. If you have more, it’s safer,” says Wassim, through an interpreter.
A pre-pandemic crisis
The tourism industry has been the sector most affected by the pandemic in Tunisia. Resorts, which are sustained by package tours, already had problems before the pandemic. Ravaged by the 2011 revolution, a devastating terrorist attack in 2015, and consequent travel bans, the country’s tourism industry had ceased to offer the security it promised in the 1960s.
“Before the pandemic, the tourism industry accounted for about 7% of GDP,” says economist Radhi Meddeb. “Consolidated with associated activities, such as transportation, gastronomy, recreation and handicrafts, their contribution amounts to 14%”.
However, Meddeb adds: “If the trends observed so far continue until the end of the year, the contribution of the tourism industry to GDP is likely to be negative, between -1% and -1.5%.”
Despite the 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 associated services. The latest events and travel bans – which respond to the escalation of COVID-19 mortality in Tunisia – have largely contributed to this trend.
With the economy not expected to regain its pre-pandemic levels for a while, tourism “will never be what it was before the crisis,” says Meddeb, as evidenced by rows of abandoned hotels on the coast of Hammamet, Sousse. , Monastir and beyond. The image heralds a predictable end to all-inclusive vacation packages. “The model for Tunisian tourism will have to be reinvented,” he adds.
Back on the beach, Amine keeps pushing the lonely fish that she keeps in her bucket. “From my village you can see Pantelleria (the Italian island),” he says. When asked how he will arrive, he answers: “I’m going to swim.”
* To protect the identities of the testimonials, their full names have not been used.
Translation by Ignacio Rial-Schies