• TUNISIA: Thalasso and medical tourism are booming

TUNISIA: Thalasso and medical tourism are booming

While tourism has been more than moribund in Tunisia since the Bardo and Sousse revolution and attacks, a sector of activity is rather booming. Better, it is renewed and is bouncing up: medical tourism. Thalassotherapy, ultra-modern clinics, specialized surgical operations, low-cost care … Tunisia confirms its position as a medical tourism platform with an increasingly-diverse number of customers: traditional Europeans and people from sub-Saharan Africa, a niche the industry leaders want to develop. But a new competition comes from Morocco, Egypt … and even from the south of the continent. Report from Sousse.


By Dounia Ben Mohamed
The Bardo attack and the drama of Sousse have hit Tunisian tourism already slowing down in recent years. These sad events were followed by massive visit cancellations to Tunisia. The European chancelleries, including Great Britain, advised their populations not to visit Tunisia. Such a major decision impacted upon the tourist sector, pillar of the local economy, and has already lost momentum for several years. “Tunisian tourism has already been in decline in recent years. Morocco has become more attractive, explains Montassar, a guide in Sousse for more than ten years. We have experienced several crises but since 2011, the context is different. We could have used it in our favor and better promote the country’s culture and history which triggered the Arab spring! On the contrary, the situation deteriorated until the Bardo and Sousse attacks, giving the final blow …”

“There are not just the beach and the desert in Tunisia!”

With the revolution and the interest aroused throughout the world for the country that drove the tyrant, Montassar created a site with friends to invite international tourists to better understand the Tunisian society by living with the inhabitant. “But very quickly, we had to stop, we had no support from the authorities, on the contrary it became dangerous for us.” In the absence of a regulation on their activities, the young guides, who were responsible for an incident, were not protected. Meanwhile, Montassar’s contract – he worked for a Spanish operator – was not renewed. “Since then, I have been working as a freelancer, but it’s not obvious. There are fewer and fewer tourists, and the operators come with their own guides, Spaniards, Russians and Poles … “Yet, passionate about his country and his job, Montassar has ideas to boost Tunisian tourist activity”. The whole strategy must be reviewed, involving all the stakeholders. There are not only the beach and the desert in Tunisia. You can discover the harvest of olive oil or dates in the south, the fishermen’s life in Kerkennah, at spring the orange trees of Cap Bon … the leading products of Tunisia. We must promote the cultural, artisanal and gastronomic heritage of Tunisia. But the priority is human capital. Working in the service sector”

A reform of the sector is required

This reform, Hichem Driss, CEO of Royal Salem Hotel and chairperson of Sousse hotel owners Association, also awaits. But it may be conducted, according to him, by political and not by the private players. “After the revolution, tourism had regressed, but it had recovered very quickly, without reaching the performance of 2010. It was constantly increasing until the Bardo and Sousse attacks. Tunisia has been classified as a risk country. For the activity to resume, the tourists must regain confidence in Tunisia. Unfortunately, it does not depend on us alone”. Instability in Libya is the main source of insecurity in Tunisia. The authorities are trying to find answers: the state of emergency was extended until October; a counter-terrorism law was recently adopted; a wall must be built at the border; security at tourist sites has been strengthened … “As far as we are concerned, we as private operators, each hotel owner has reinforced security on his site in addition to the police and military forces dispatched by the authorities in the city. But it is essential to stabilize the country” as security is the first criterion of attractiveness of a tourist destination. On the contrary, for Montassar, the political leaders are responsible for the deterioration of activity: “Since the 1990s, the authorities have put emphasis on cities such as Hamamet or Djerba, where they had economic interests to the detriment of Sousse, Monastir, Mahdia …”

“Thalasso tourism is not hit by crisis”

Howeve, a few cities resist. At least, those who have not bet on mass tourism such as the Hasdrubal group, which has several thalasso & spa hotels, one of which is in Sousse. At the Port el Kantaoui hotel – which owes its name to the marina just located nearby – calm, conviviality and professionalism are the watchwords. “This hotel is 33 years old,” says the manager, Charfeddine Mokhtar. An age that cannot be seen on the hotel walls of 232 rooms, very well maintained. “Our hotel is not designed for family or mass tourism. It is rather a high-end hotel. Our clients, mostly seniors, are mostly curists “. Here, all clients are called by their first name, upon their arrival. The majority, from Europe, come to benefit from the thalasso treatments provided by the hotel, pioneer in the hotel industry in Tunisia and several times awarded an the international level and, in addition, 100% ecological. The water is recovered from the sea and recycled. Though the hotel is hit by the city’s tourist crisis, it is nevertheless much better off than the others, thanks to a concept that has allowed to build customer loyalty. Depending on the formula of his stay, the client enjoys, from the second stay, promotional measures with services and care offered. The more he comes, the less he pays. As a result, the hotel has a return rate of 60%, including this season. “We did not receive any new customers this summer, nevertheless, our regular clients came”, mostly French, Swiss and Russians and some Tunisians, the latter benefiting from a 30% reduction on the stay, including the Tunisians from the Diaspora, the Algerians and recently, some people from Sub-Saharan Africa.

There is a category of tourists, long neglected by the player of the sector, but which today is the object of all attention. “The big flow arrived in early August, more important than in previous years, but not really at our level,” explains Hichem Driss. The Algerians used to rent apartments and not stay at the hotels. It is a niche to be developed “. There are others such as intra-African tourism which is growing more and more while the middle classes explode in the continent. “The fact is that the professionals of the sector have long looked down on the Algerian and African tourism,” said Montassar. We focused on the Europeans. Today we are beginning to take an interest in it”


Auteur : Dounia Ben Mohamed // Photos : Musée du Bardo, visite du Directeur du Louvre et ateliers pédagogiques de céramiques © Musée du Bardo

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