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Where are all the tourists?

Tunis in March 2012. I remember reading an article in a Canadian newspaper about a year ago, sitting in a Café in Ottawa waiting for my US visa to be renewed. The article described Ben Ali’s “douce dictature”, tried to analyze the January events in Tunisia and predicted massive effects in the region. At the time, the analysis seemed a bit far-fetched to me, but the thought that the protests in Tunisia might have an impact on the whole region and especially the regime in Libya was fascinating.

I finally have the opportunity to visit Tunis in March 2012, a bit more than a year after the events that kicked off the Arab spring. Ben Ali and his regime are gone. Gaddaffi as well, together with a number of other prominent political figures – mostly dictators – that I used hear about in the evening news ever since I can remember watching news. The 2011 political changes are really quite amazing.

I don’t have a lot of time to visit the city and get a feel for the atmosphere during the past days. As usual, most of my time will be spent between office and the hotel. It is fascinating though to discuss with colleagues who are all participating – in one way or another – in the political transition.

During an unfortunately rainy Friday afternoon, Youssuf takes me to Sidi Bou Said, the Medina Souk and Cartago. It is freezing cold and the sky is most of the time covered in thick grey rain clouds. But the white and blue colors of Sidi Bou Said are nevertheless striking , and the temperature does not prevent us from having a thé à la menthe with pine nuts and a shisha on the terrasse of one of the famous cafes where Youssuf came to sit and read almost every day during his studies at the Tunis IHEC. The terrace is very picturesque and it is easy to imagine Paul Klee sitting here and taking in the colors of the houses and the see.

Youssuf had insisted that we visit the most important places in Tunis, together with the relatively new industrial zone Lake 1 & 2. “So how is Tunisia compared to expectations you had before you came?” he asked. As he explains, about 150,000 jobs in the tourism sector were abolished last year, together with a sharp decline of mainly European tourists. Unemployment is hitting the 20% mark, and economic recovery not yet in sight.

The people I have the opportunity to discuss with are clearly emotionally and economically affected by the economic situation. But they clearly are also proud about the fact that it was Tunisia that triggered a whole cascade of events in the region. Everybody is also welcoming the international attention the country has gained.

“C’est dommage que vous n’ avez pas eu de la chance avec le temps. Il faut revenir !” says the taxi driver on the way to the airport.

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