The former Tunisian Minister of Tourism, René Trabelsi, is lucky to be alive after fighting off a severe case of coronavirus. In an interview with Sami Utique and Nicolas Bouchet he tells us about what he achieved during his 16 months in the government of Youssef Chahed.
René Trabelsi was Tunisia’s Minister of Tourism and more recently Minister of Transport until a new government took over in April. A Tunisian of Jewish origin from the island of Djerba – the island is renowned for its synagogue and still receives pilgrims from all over the world – he was brought in to reinvigorate an industry that dominated the Tunisian economy prior the Arab spring of 2011. This veteran of the tourism sector was an inspired choice. Gregarious, charismatic and full of energy, he brought renewed hope and optimism to an industry that had become moribund but seemed to have turned a corner until Covid hit. He himself contracted the virus and for a few days it was touch and go. This is what he had to say:
You spent seven and a half weeks in a coma from Covid-19 and had over a month of convalescing. How are you feeling after such an awful experience?
Getting over it was something of a miracle. My condition was not at all reassuring: I fell into a coma the day after entering hospital and the doctors were not optimistic. They told me that my body resisted and I put up a strong fight against the virus. And then I recovered. I was lucky. I didn’t have any brain damage, I just had to go through rehabilitation for two or three months to recover lost muscle.
You had just completed 16 very productive months as Tunisia’s Minister of Tourism, which ended on 2 March. How do you rate this experience – did you have enough time to make your mark?
For me, being Minister of Tourism for 16 months was an exceptional experience and a real mission. I didn’t return to Tunisia because I wanted to be a minister, but rather to help my country in this very important position. When I returned to Paris on 6 March, I was very tired from the incredible pace [of the job]. I travelled a lot, I travelled throughout Tunisia. This work has enabled Tunisians to discover they have more tourist areas than just Hammamet, Djerba, Tabarka or Sousse.
My goal was to restore the confidence of foreign tourists, especially Europeans. If we want them to come back to Tunisia, we must show that the country doesn’t have a security problem. You can’t complete a mission if you you’re unable to put your ideas into practice. Governments are generally given five years because that is the time required to change things and modify attitudes and practices.
How did you go from being a business leader to a minister? The practices are very different.
It’s easy for a business leader to move on to an important political post such as that of minister. When I was offered this opportunity I had already spoken with the Prime Minister and told him that my approach to business is quite relaxed but that I would run this ministry properly, but with a system more akin to that of the private sector.
I was responsible for my decisions, and given some leeway to move quickly, but when I knew things were important to the country, of course I would get the PM’s consent.
But on the whole, I told my team, and we’ve got highly competent people in the ministry, to go and test things out and not be afraid to try out new ideas.
I take my hat off to the teams in the ministry. They won me over with the quality of their work and their commitment. True public servants who work for the good of their country.
Tourism is the first victim of the health crisis and policy needs to be reviewed. How do you see the development of the sector?
Covid-19 has been a terrible blow to the economy in general and to tourism in particular. People are afraid of being stranded somewhere. Countries are putting travellers into quarantine. It’s a global problem, but I think you have to live with it.
On the one hand we need tourists to support the country, on the other we are taking risks because people could die and we must take full precautions. Some countries impose tests to accommodate tourists. Winter, which is always difficult, will be very hard this year for Tunisian tourism.
Tunisia has more than 800 hotels, but the industry has never been fully reformed. Mass tourism is a model that is no longer working. Can it be reformed?
Going beyond mass tourism, we have wonderful opportunities to for spas and therapy treatment, sports and congress tourism, as well as ecotourism, in exceptional places. We can now attract a different clientele that can afford these things.
This requires political will. I am not saying that the administration is blocking it, but as a minister I discovered that the administration works with rules that date back to independence. Today an investor who wants to launch a project asks for authorisations that can take an incredible time to come through or are not given at all, even when there is no risk.
There needs to be political will to facilitate the process, issue authorisations, and speed up the execution.
In short, it is necessary to attract foreign investors and above all not to complicate their lives. They will create jobs there in difficult areas where you want to hire staff. I did some work on this subject in Tozeur by facilitating the opening of hotels that had remained closed, with the opening of the exceptional Anantara hotel, which belongs to a Qatari group and brings in a different clientele who pay a thousand dinars ($300) per night.
Today, with Covid-19 unfortunately everything is delayed, but I think that in a year it will start again. In Tunisia, it is not the Minister of Tourism but the State that carry out and help reforms. Parliament must also speed up the vote on laws brought in by the Prime Minister. I saw a lot of delayed bills when I was minister, which as you can imagine delays reform – it was a handicap.
How do you see the future?
I have my own tour operator in France and we have remained faithful to Tunisia. We maintain charter flights and sell packages, although demand is not the same due to the current situation. We must remain resilient, and as a Tunisian, our priority is to sell our country and its tourism. With each crisis, you have to change your methods a little.
In Tunisia, we’ll have to change focus and look at attracting a different type of clientele, those that are seeking nature, culture etc. During my time as minister, I discovered that many archaeological sites are damaged. Many municipalities are neglecting them. This is a problem between the Ministry of Culture and the municipalities. However, tourists love to visit these sites and they are numerous in Tunisia!
Tunisia is a country in crisis. Is it possible to support tourism in the way you describe during such a difficult period?
We must use the crisis to bounce back. The people feel the crisis and know that we have no choice. Tomorrow we have to bring back tourism, but it is not a security issue or question of fear, it is a global health problem.
You can catch the virus on planes, at airports, so you have to think about how to open up the destination now. And for that, we need a market approach for each country: Russia, Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, France, Italy. Each has its own way of working. We need a plan, but must also help the hoteliers, many of whom will close this winter. The banks must support them. They are in debt, cannot pay their staff or their rent and costs due to lack of revenue.
At the start of my tenure, faced with these debts, I asked for a “Marshall Plan”. What is the point of hoteliers owing more in interest than the capital they borrowed and being unable to pay it? We should make it easier to manage hotels or have banks to convert some of that debt into equity, as in Spain and other countries where banks are hotel shareholders.
Your appointment aroused anti-Semitic reactions in some quarters. How did you overcome this?
It’s true that it wasn’t easy. I spoke with the Prime Minister when he appointed me and asked him if he was sure that I would be confirmed as Minister. It’s true that I was attacked by some opposition MPs who used me as a pretext. It’s a shame that they used me because of my religion when I’m Tunisian like them and they already knew me. Suddenly René Trabelsi became a pro-Israel Zionist. They made use of it for political and populist ends.
What do you take away from the experience of 16 months in government?
In many ways, I was taken aback by the messages of support I received. When I went to have a coffee in the café in front of my ministry, people spoke to me about some of the personal attacks you mention: “René don’t listen to them,” they said, “work, we are with you, forget about it!” The people were exceptional. Everywhere I went, in cafés, on the street, people wanted to kiss me, shake my hand and say kind words to me. On my Facebook page I have exceptional words from people I don’t know.
Sometimes I came back to my office and my secretary told me that an association had brought me chocolates or flowers to say thank you because they liked what I said on TV the night before. I think that some politicians who call themselves representatives of the people do not in fact represent them. But the people represent Tunisia!