While Tunisia continues to build a new democratic future and to reconstruct its economy in conventional ways, its new leaders and many Tunisians are also looking for inspiration in unlikely places – notably the country’s rich ancient history and culture. Faten Bushehri and David Meffe went to investigate.
In an effort to pump life back into the struggling economy as a consequence of what happened after the fall of long-time ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s new government has promised to revive the shaky tourism industry by embracing ancient history and the diversity of culture across Tunisia as part of a new shared future.
“When the revolution started in 2011 tourism stopped. There was no tourism in Tunisia. Now it’s slowly picking up and it’s coming back. Everywhere is fully booked, but you don’t see the tourists on the main streets in the capital. They are usually visiting the old Souq and the Roman baths,” says Hassanain Al Aydi, a former tour guide at the Ministry of Tourism who now works with the Ministry of Culture.
“The ministry is encouraging every town in Tunisia to have its own heritage and traditional culture, and wants to preserve that. But it’s difficult.”
The capital city, Tunis, sits roughly on the same ground as the ancient Carthaginian Empire, rivals to the early Roman Empire before their eventual defeat in 146 BC. Since then, the country has been host to great empires like Rome and the Islamic Caliphates that made Tunis a centre for learning and science in the early Middle Ages.
Yet, despite cultural and ancient historical wealth akin to some of its European rivals, many of Tunisia’s archaeological sites like Carthage lay in relative disrepair with the tourism industry continuously suffering from a lack of confidence and fears about future political instability.
“We don’t always respect our heritage; we don’t always value it the way we should. But what we’re trying to do now is really try and show off the non-material culture of Tunisia,” says Al Aydi.
“We need to show the world that we are on the right track now. Security is indispensible for tourism and investment.”
Since the revolution that sparked the so-called Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, Tunisia’s once-profitable tourism industry plummeted amid the chaos that filled the streets. Despite relative stability since the first democratic election in December, the country’s myriad of archaeological attractions have taken a back seat, compared to more stable cultural destinations in the region, such as Morocco.
But in recent months, Tunisia’s new civilian government, in conjunction with the Ministry of Tourism, has been seeking ways to reclaim Tunisia’s cultural and archaeological history and reboot the economically essential tourist industry that previously employed more than a quarter of the country – whether directly or indirectly.
The new government, under President Beji Caid Essebsi who was elected just last December, is pledging to begin re-excavating certain ancient sites around Carthage, news that has been enthusiastically welcomed by historians and tour guides like Abdulfatah, who maintains and looks after a complex of old Roman cisterns and aqueducts just outside of Tunis.
“During Ben Ali’s rule, historical sites like this one didn’t get much attention, because he gave archaeological projects to people close to him, his friends and family, who abused the power and were thieves. They stole the money and spent it for their personal use rather than invest in sites like these,” Abdulfatah says, standing at the nearly deserted site which was only partially excavated during the French colonial period.
“Since the revolution, the government has been paying more attention to tourism in Tunisia, and the right people are looking after projects in historical sites, so that’s a good thing.”
In addition to reinvesting in culture, Al Aydi says that government ministries are also implementing an “open skies” policy to provide a free market environment for commercial airlines to make additional runs to and from Tunis – this is especially important since former North African transit hubs like Tripoli don’t offer the same stability they used to.
Notable strategies to revamp Tunisia’s tourist marketability also include restoration of Tunis’ ancient Medina, which bears much of the city’s architecture that predates the French colonial period. In certain areas of the Medina, several civil society groups have funded major restorations and the repaving of old-style rustic cobblestones into the historic centre of the old capital. In addition to ornate archways and charming side- souks, the Medina hosts some 700 small monuments, fountains and courtyard homes, tracing Tunisia’s history – the aim is to get young Tunisians to move into the area and restore the old homes to their former glory.
The drain on the tourist industry is partially to blame for the country’s economic shortfalls since the revolution – revenue from tourism once accounted for a sizeable portion of the country’s real GDP since Tunisia lacks the rich fossil-fuel deposits of some of its North African neighbours.
According to data released by the National Institute of Statistics, the documented unemployment level in Tunisia sits at just under 16% – though other organisations like the Tunisian General Labour Union argue the figure is much closer to 30%. The poverty rate caused by unemployment and low wages stands at 26.9%.
The ensuing unemployment has also contributed to massive spikes in the number of young educated Tunisians leaving the country, legally or otherwise, adding to the overall brain-drain plaguing the country at the moment.
While Tunisia’s cultural revival of sorts will be slow in coming, many prominent economists, like Dr Moez Joudi, agree that reinventing traditional industries like artisanal craftshops, tourism and agriculture are key to keeping the world’s newest democracy on the right track.
“We have an amazing history that we don’t always value.
That’s what’s missing in Tunisia,” says Joudi, who has often been a vocal critic of the new government’s slowness on economic reform. He says that in addition to the work currently being done by the ministry of culture, Tunisia needs to reclaim its tourism “brand”, embracing both ancient history and the diversity of regional culture as marketable areas.
“We’ve invested in democracy, that’s what we’ve done over the past 4 years. We’ve succeeded in the democratic and political transition, but now it’s time to focus on the economic transition, the cultural transition. We also need an economic and a cultural revolution – this is what will bring about the social revolution we need to improve life for people in Tunisia.”