A cynic will always tell you that if something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.
So a cynic would surely arch an eyebrow and murmur incredulously at the very idea of a Mediterranean country, just three hours’ flying time from London, to which you can travel within the next month and enjoy a one-week, all-inclusive, five-star holiday for just over £520 per person, including airfares.
Looking to save a few pennies? Then the same deal will cost a little more than £380 on a three-star basis – although, whichever accommodation category you choose, the temperature will still be in the 20Cs during October.
The cynic, surely, is correct. This must be an Avalon, a Xanadu, an Eldorado beyond some fantastical horizon – for no such place exists in real life. Except that it does. Because the place in question is Tunisia – a destination of fine beaches, low prices and reliably good seafront accommodation, yet comparatively few tourists. Not from this country, anyway. Of the 6.3 million international visitors who touched down in the smallest piece of the North African jigsaw in 2022, a mere 145,000 of them were British.
To give that figure some sort of continental context, almost twice that number – 267,000 travellers from the UK – headed to Egypt last year, even though the distance is much greater. And about 610,000 of us went to Tunisia’s neighbour Morocco – well established in British hearts and passports, and involving a flight of about the same length.
So why the statistical shortfall?
Some of it is down to the variety of options – and of perceptions. While Tunisia does offer more than buckets and spades, the UK public largely view it as a sun-and-sand escape zone – whereas those bigger numbers for Morocco and Egypt will always include mini-breaks to Marrakech and Casablanca, and history-focused jaunts to Cairo and the pyramids, Luxor and the Valley of the Kings.
It is also a matter of accessibility. You can now fly to eight Moroccan airports directly from the UK, and six in Egypt, but only two in Tunisia – of which the largest, in the capital, Tunis, can only be reached from London.
Then, sadly, there is the scar tissue of eight years ago. Few countries have avoided the bloody touch of terrorism in recent history. Not in Europe, and not in North Africa, where Morocco and Egypt have both suffered – the bombing of a café in Marrakech’s main square, Djemaa el-Fna, in 2011, and the downing of a charter plane full of holidaymakers shortly after leaving Sharm el-Sheikh in 2015, did sizeable damage to both countries’ tourism industries.
But Tunisia stands apart in British eyes due to the shootings in Sousse in 2015. Where the victims in Marrakech and Sharm el-Sheikh were predominantly French and Russian respectively, 30 of the 38 people killed in the Port El Kantaoui resort area on that June day were from the UK.
The attack obliterated the British holiday market in Tunisia; an effective ban on Britons visiting Tunisia, introduced almost overnight by the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), was upheld for more than two years, ensuring that there was no reconnection until late in 2017. Even now, the harm isn’t fully repaired. That figure of 145,000 British visitors to Tunisia in 2022 is less than a third of the half-million (497,000) who flew in in 2014.
However, it is also an improvement. Covid is as big a factor in its relative lowness as the lingering aftershocks of 2015. And if 145,000 is still somewhat short of the 196,000 British visitors to Tunisia in the rebound year of 2018 – and considerably down on the 378,000 of resurgent 2019 – then it vastly exceeds the 18,000 of pandemic-stymied 2021.
There have been other factors, too, beyond Tunisia’s control. Not least the collapse of the Thomas Cook Group – which accounted for a fair proportion of the British package-holiday market – in September 2019. Although the brand has been reborn as a phoenix company, the successor airline, Sunclass, is a Scandinavian carrier – which does not fly to Tunisia.
Even here, though, there are green shoots. While Thomas Cook was the first major tour operator to return to Tunisia after the FCDO ban was lifted, its biggest rival also entered the fray in 2018. Tui now offers Tunisian package breaks from 11 British airports (including Belfast, as of May next year) – competing with easyJet, which will provide a similar service from five UK departure points once Birmingham joins the club in March.
Both companies focus on Enfidha- Hammamet – the main airport on Tunisia’s sandy west coast, and the gateway to the resort hubs of Monastir, Hammamet and Mahdia, as well as Sousse. And if the tourism infrastructure varies little in each – giant waterfront hotel complexes with numerous swimming pools and all-inclusive buffets – then the cost-of-living-defying price of staying in them (see below), and the affability of the weather (Tunisia only dips below the 20Cs between December and March), are allure enough.
I was the first British journalist to visit Tunisia once travel connections were restored in 2017 – and found each of these areas to be friendly, relaxed and eager to welcome back to their shops and restaurants the holidaymakers repelled by extremism two years earlier.
Of course, there is a Tunisia beyond the beach, and those who visit the country with culture and heritage in mind find much to love. The capital is a fascinating place; part French-colonial throwback in its broad avenues, but very much a North African enclave in a medina that is as sprawling and enthralling as its counterpart in Marrakech.
Time in Tunis also means a chance to visit Sidi Bou Said, an endlessly photogenic town of blue doors and seafront terraces – and the ruins of Carthage, the city destroyed and then rebuilt by Rome in the 2nd century BC. The ancient era is also visible further south in El Djem, whose Roman amphitheatre is the Colosseum’s equal in looks and majesty (if in not size).
True, the FCDO still has the occasional concern about Tunisia – noting the protests that took place in Tunis earlier this year against the increasingly autocratic rule of President Kais Saied (see gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/tunisia). But aside from various border areas, it colours the map of the country an unworried green.
This quiet optimism can be heard on the Tunisian side of the conversation. Interviewed in November, Nizar Slimane, the director of the Tunisian National Tourist Office in the UK, said his country hoped to witness a 50 per cent growth in British visitor numbers in 2023.
“There is no reason why we cannot be as competitive as we used to be,” he explained. “The issue is [air] capacity – there are more people who want to come to Tunisia than the capacity available. But tour operators are looking at Tunisia with greater confidence than in the past. We are pretty confident that Britons will respond, if we have greater capacity.”
So, then, perhaps now is the time for those in the know to visit, before the trickle of British holidaymakers who have already rediscovered Tunisia’s delights returns to its former torrent.
Five tempting Tunisian holidays
The holidays mentioned in the introduction to this piece are a seven-night, all-inclusive stay at the five-star AQI Manar hotel, from £527pp – or a getaway of the same length and board rate at the three-star AQI Venus Beach, from £387pp. Both breaks involve a flight from Gatwick on October 7, via Tui (020 3451 2688).
Tunisia’s third-biggest city is much more than a beach destination. It still boasts extensive medieval fortifications, and its medina is listed as a Unesco World Heritage site. That said, it has a broad selection of luxury waterfront hotels, too. A seven-night, all-inclusive stay at the five-star Sousse Pearl Marriott Resort & Spa, flying from Bristol on October 6, costs from £708pp, via easyJet Holidays (0330 551 5165).
Just 12 miles south of Sousse, Monastir plays a similarly relaxing game, with properties such as the four-star Hotel Liberty Resort, which overlooks the Mediterranean from the district of Skanes – a narrow isthmus, now largely devoted to holiday accommodation, due east of the city. A seven-night, all-inclusive stay, flying from Manchester on October 11, starts at £445pp, through On The Beach (0871 474 3000).
Gleaming just offshore in the Gulf of Gabes, near the southerly city of Sfax, the island of Djerba has quite a history. Greek mythologists posit it as the Island of the Lotus-Eaters, visited by Odysseus in The Odyssey; it spent the best part of a century as part of the kingdom of Sicily; and it displays its medieval battle scars in the 14th-century Borj el Kebir fortress.
Nowadays, it is a popular sunspot for French and German tourists, and while you cannot fly there directly from the UK, the quality of its hotels makes the journey worthwhile. A one-week holiday in the five-star Hasdrubal Prestige Thalassa & Spa, flying from London Heathrow via Frankfurt on October 15, costs from £2,026pp, via Expedia (020 3024 8211).
The country’s ancient past shines most brightly in Tunis and El Djem. Jules Verne (020 3811 6201) includes both in its Grand Tour of Tunisia – a 10-night group tour that also peers at the past in Dougga, Kerkouane, Tabarka, Hammamet and Tozeur. The next departure will be on November 4, from £1,545pp, including flights.