The seafront along the town of Hammamet in Tunisia is deserted. Looking out at the bright empty coast from his souvenir shop, Kais Azzabi, 42, describes the crowds that would stroll along the broad boulevards. Today, there is nobody.
“It was very busy here,” he says, gesturing to the street and the Mediterranean Sea beyond. “Since the corona started, everything stopped.”
Blasted by revolution, terror attacks and political instability, the pandemic has all but delivered a death blow to Tunisia’s embattled tourism sector, a former economic staple. Many of its employees are now looking across the sea for opportunities to build new lives in Europe.
Beyond the resorts, recent political events have done little to instil confidence in hotel workers. A presidential power grab in July, which suspended parliament, ousted the chief of government (prime minister), and put former constitutional law professor and political independent Kais Saied into office, has yet to deliver a new long-term vision for the country.
Amine*, 20, sits on the empty beach outside one of the resort’s imposing white hotels. The lifeguard from nearby Tazerka pushes a half-dead fish around a bucket as his friend wades into a lively sea in search of more.
“There were some Tunisian guests here earlier, but it’s dead now,” he says, through an interpreter, looking to the empty beach huts and stacks of unused loungers. “My future is overseas,” he says, remaining vague on how he might get there. “All my friends have gone [to Europe],” he says. “Tazerka is empty. All the nearby towns are empty. Everyone has gone.”
In August, migrant arrivals in Italy from Tunisia were up about 75% on the previous year. According to the International Organization for Migration, this marked “the highest number of departures since the aftermath of the 2011 revolution”. Among them, were 502 unaccompanied minors, as well as a further 138 travelling with at least one member of their family, suggesting that these were not temporary relocations.
In another part of Tazerka, Ramzi, 20, sells melons from the back of his father’s truck on the roadside. Every day, he travels with his father and cousins 150km (90 miles) from Kairouan to sell fruit. They can only do this during the summer months, surviving the winter on whatever they have saved in the tourist season or from occasional work his father can find in construction. Covid-19 has made a desperate situation worse, Ramzi’s father, Nouredinne, says.
“I only want to go to Europe,” Ramzi says. “I’ve been wanting to go there for five or 10 years.” One of his cousins, Wassim, shouts over that he has never had any goal other than to get to Europe since he was a child.
The only thing stopping them is money. “You need around 3,500 TD [Tunisian dinar], but that’s risky. If you have more, it’s more secure,” Wassim says, through an interpreter.
While coronavirus has hammered Tunisia’s economy, its tourism sector has been hardest hit. Even before the pandemic, the country’s sprawling identikit resorts, relying as they do on package tourism, were in trouble. Battered by revolution in 2011, a devastating terror attack in 2015 and subsequent travel bans, the country’s tourism sector had long ceased to offer the security it promised in the 1960s.
“Before the pandemic, the tourism sector represented around 7% of GDP,” says economist Radhi Meddeb. “Consolidated with the ancillary activities of transport, catering, leisure and crafts, its contribution increases to 14%.”
However, he adds: “If the trends observed so far continue until the end of the year, the contribution of the tourism sector to GDP will probably be negative, around -1% to -1.5% of GDP.”
Despite the best efforts of hoteliers, tens of thousands of jobs have been lost. Before the pandemic, more than half a million people were employed in tourism and its support services. Recent events, not least the travel bans imposed in response to Tunisia’s escalating Covid death rate, have put pay to much of that.
With the economy not expected to recover to pre-pandemic levels for some time, tourism in Tunisia “will never be what it was before the crisis”, says Meddeb, evidenced by the rows of abandoned hotels along the coast at Hammamet, Sousse, Monastir and beyond, signalling an end to the all-inclusive package holidays they once provided. “The Tunisian tourism model will have to reinvent itself.”
Back on the beach, Amine continues to push his solitary dying fish around the bucket. “You can see Pantelleria [Italian island] from my village,” he says. Asked how he’ll get there, he says “I’ll swim”.
* Full names not used to protect identities