Tunisia: Why budget flights are the solution to kick-starting tourism

Simon Calder

The Arab Spring was triggered by the despair of a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamad Bouazizi at the humiliation meted out by officials of a corrupt regime. He doused himself in petrol, set fire to himself, and died on 4 January 2011.

His death triggered an uprising that spread quickly across the North African nation. Ten days later President Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, a traditional retirement home for deposed dictators. That momentous day is commemorated in the Place 14 Janvier 2011.

As pressure for human rights rippled across North Africa and the Middle East, Tunisia experienced a peaceful transition to a pretty good approximation of democracy. Yet within days the Foreign Office declared the country off limits. The planes went in, the holidaymakers flew out, and the tourism industry — in which an estimated 200,000 people were directly employed — took the first of several heavy blows.

A year later, with the no-go rating relaxed, I spent a joyful week exploring the country. When I returned, the Tunisian National Tourist Office in London contacted me to get a view on how to win back visitors.

“Budget airlines,” was my concise answer. I was thanked politely and told that the idea of allowing in low-cost airlines was on the agenda, but only when the national airline, Tunisair, was in good shape to compete.

Since then, things have got much, much worse for Tunisia. In March 2015, 20 tourists died in an attack on the country’s leading cultural collection, the Bardo Museum in Tunis. In June of that year, Seifeddine Rezgui gunned down 30 British sunbathers and eight other people at the Imperial Marhaba Hotel in Sousse.

Tunisia went back on the no-go list and another airlift operation began.

Two summers later, the UK Government finally eased its travel advice for Tunisia. And this week the travel trade media organisation TTG held an event to discuss how to persuade people to return.

If beaches, culture, desert escapes or gastronomy appeal, I strongly recommend you go to Tunisia. I don’t accept the assertion from the new director of the Tunisian National Tourist Office, Mounira Derbel, that “Tunisia is as safe as any European country”.

With a long, leaky frontier with the failed state of Libya, it can hardly be described as safe; the Foreign Office says “terrorists are still very likely to try to carry out attacks”. Yet I believe the risks of travelling to tourist areas are now tolerably low. The more holidaymakers return to Tunisia, the more the local economy will benefit, and the less likely it is that such atrocities will be replicated elsewhere.

But confidence that you will return alive is just one of the considerations of a journey. Price is also important.

Whether or not you relish a flight on easyJet and Ryanair, they do wonders for a nation’s tourist industry. If you have no travel plans for November, you could do much worse than fly on Ryanair from London to the fine city of Marrakech. The return fare (out on 14 November, back 10 days later) is £47.

Tunis is another equally good contender for the title “most exotic place you can reach within three hours’ flying time of Gatwick”. But the cheapest flight I can find to the Tunisian capital on those dates (and many others I have checked) is £233 on Tunisair — five times higher.

At the TTG event, I asked Ms Derbel if budget airlines are on the horizon to connect the UK with Tunisia. The process is under way, I was told. But a spokesperson for easyJet later told me: “We continue to review the opportunity Tunisia presents but do not have any plans to change our schedule at present.”

Ryanair’s spokesperson said: “We’re always interested in new routes, which are dependent on demand, aircraft availability and viable airport deals.” But the airline noted that Tunisia does not offer open skies.

Eleven years ago, Morocco made a revolutionary move for an African country, and signed an open skies deal with the EU. For the effect, just look at the Marrakech airport departures board. Between 5pm and 8pm on Thursday evening, there are flights to Lisbon, London, Eindhoven, Frankfurt, Montpellier, Nice and two to Paris. The corresponding time at Tunis airport also has a pair of flights to the French capital, but the only other European departure is on Alitalia to Rome.

Almost every African government is fiercely protectionist of its national airline, just as European authorities used to be. Aviation across the continent is far more expensive and far less effective than it should be. Looking after Tunisair effectively means putting up barriers to European tourists. Which is the last thing the Tunisian people need or deserve.