Tunisia reminds tourists of a galaxy far, far away

Original movie scenery for "Star Wars: A New Hope." On location in Ong Jemel, near Nefta, Tunisia. Credit: acceptfoto//Getty//iStock

Arrivals to Tunisia have increased by 32.5 percent so far this year, according to the UNWTO, a trend which could see the country return to its 2010 visitor levels.

The country, where security tightened after the 2015 terror attack in Sousse, is seeing renewed interest from tour operators, as well as a drive by its own residents to remind film fans of its position at the center of the galaxy as a Star Wars film set.

The UNWTO said that, should the trend continue, some 7.5 million holiday-makers would visit Tunisia in 2017, approaching the 7.8 million who travelled there in 2010. The growth builds on the UNWTO’s figures for 2016, which saw a 7-percent rise, with the organization crediting “the strengthening of security, as well as the gradual recovery of the Russian market and the redirection of tourism flows from other troubled destinations, contributed to these results.” 

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The UNWTO’s enthusiasm was shared in data from Forward Keys, which described the country alongside Egypt as “the destinations leading the recovery” in Africa, with Tunisia taking 6 percent of international travelers to the continent for the year to July 31, in comparison with the 18 percent reported in the more-established leading market of South Africa.

Tunisia reported a 250-percent increase in visitors from China, after relaxing visa requirements in line with similar moves made by Morocco.

The country has been taking steps to drive tourism itself. At the ITB event in Berlin this year, a delegation from the Save Mos Espa campaign (Mos Espa is Darth Vader’s childhood home), which is supported by the Tourism Chamber for the Oasis and Sahara regions, presented its vision to restore the location and develop it as a tourist attraction.

The site of Ong Jmel in Nefta, where Mos Espa was created, is currently being consumed by the desert and, after raising the money to start restoration, the campaign is now looking for development finance.

The decision by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in the UK to change its travel advice for Tunisia is expected to drive more conventional tourism.  

TUI CEO Fritz Joussen told analysts at the company’s third-quarter earnings call that it was “something which is demanded by British customers, and therefore it is most likely to be a part of our program.” 

RELATED: To learn more about development, investment and more in the Mediterranean, the Mediterranean Resort & Hotel Real Estate Forum (MR&H) is Oct. 16-18 in Portaventura, Spain. Find out more at www.mrandh.com.  

Of hotel operators, Hilton has spoken in recent weeks of hopes to expand in the country, while earlier this year Deutsche Hospitality signed its third property in Tunisia, with the Steigenberger Hotel Palace Marhaba on the Gulf of Hammamet due to open in November. Deutsche Hospitality will operate the hotel under a management agreement. The owner is the Tunisia-based Marhaba Company.

TUI took the opportunity to hail its balanced portfolio, which it said meant that it was “prepared for shifts in demand for individual destinations,” in particular with falling—then recently rising—demand for Turkey offset by “very strong demand for holidays to Spain, Greece and Italy."

In the light of last week’s events in Barcelona, the company and other global players like it may be once again looking for levers to pull in their portfolios. 

Katherine Doggrell is an editor at Hotel Analyst, the U.K.-based news analysis service for hotel investors.

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