Coronavirus crisis punctures Tunisia tourism rebound
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"Normally, the season starts now. But there is nobody," said Mohammed Saddam, who owns an antiques shop in the famous blue and white village of Sidi Bou Said, near the capital Tunis.
Usually its streets are filled with tourists at this time of year, but now Saddam is only opening his store for an hour a day to air it out.
"We are waiting for the airspace to reopen," he said. "But 2020 is a write-off."
The North African country has registered 45 deaths from the COVID-19 illness, and for several days this week saw no new infections, putting it among Mediterranean countries faring relatively well in the pandemic.
The sector had been bouncing back to levels not seen since before the 2011 revolution that toppled longtime autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
"Tunisia had started off the year well, with an increase in (tourism) revenue of 28 percent," said Feriel Gadhoumi, a coordinator at the tourism office.
But that all came to a halt in March as countries imposed travel restrictions and border closures to curb the spread of the pandemic.
Now, seaside resorts are empty and hoteliers are trying to salvage what they can of the season, counting on the country's relatively optimistic health situation and sector-specific virus prevention measures.
- Steps to 'regain trust' -
While most hotels have shut for now, some are providing accommodation for people in compulsory quarantine, notably Tunisians repatriated from abroad.
The tourism ministry is preparing protocols for facilities that reopen, with some planning to do so from June.
Measures are expected to include temperature checks at hotel entrances, rooms being disinfected and left empty for 48 hours between guests and the intensive cleaning of common areas.
Such steps are necessary to "regain the trust of partners", Gadhoumi from the tourism office said.
The UN World Tourism Organization has warned that international tourist numbers could drop by 60 to 80 percent in 2020.
Other changes could include offering fixed menus instead of buffets and giving guests the same tables and umbrellas for the length of their stay, hotel sales manager Anis Souissi said.
Clients will focus "on health and hygiene", he added.
But it is unclear whether hotels, some of which are already on the edge of bankruptcy, will be able to make the necessary investments.
After the political instability that followed the fall of Ben Ali, jihadist attacks in 2015 targeted European holiday-makers at the Bardo museum in Tunis and the coastal tourist resort of Sousse.
The attacks killed 60 people, many of them British tourists, and dealt a heavy blow to the sector.
- Limited options -
The security situation has greatly improved since then, and tourist numbers last year had returned to pre-2011 levels, with 9.5 million visitors.
But the collapse in September of British tour operator Thomas Cook, which brought five percent of Tunisia's European tourists, shook some hotels.
Thomas Cook had suspended trips to Tunisia after the attacks, but had returned in force in the last two years.
Now, the sector is searching for ways to survive, as the coronavirus crisis persists and as passenger flights from Europe, Tunisia's main market, are expected to remain grounded for much of the summer.
Although thousands of foreigners remain stuck in the country due to border closures and flight suspensions, their presence won't be nearly enough.
Instead, hoteliers have their eyes set on local tourists, as well as Algerian or Russian holiday-makers who helped dampen the previous crises.
Bringing more bad news, Algeria has been seriously affected by the pandemic and reopening its borders is not envisaged in the short term, while Russia currently has the second-highest number of reported infections in the world.
"Targeting the local market and preparing for the next season are the only choices we have," sales manager Souissi said.