Interview “Tunisia has many assets around which innovative tourism can be developed”
The activities of his hotel complex were in clear progression at the beginning of the year before the health crisis due to the Covid 19 pandemic. Mohamed Amouri, president of Hasdrubal Thalassa Hotels Company thinks that the pandemic is an accelerator which pushes all the actors of the tourism sector to start reforms and develop a new vision of tourism, in accordance with the requirements of the 21stcentury.
Interview by DBM
You are a recognized stakeholder in the thalasso tourism sector in Tunisia. How did you experience this period of upheaval caused by the Covid 19 pandemic (closure of establishments, air links, and drop in activity…)?
As a hotelier, we have been directly and severely affected by the COVID 19 pandemic, which has left us in a state of great uncertainty. For us, the events related to COVID 19 are unprecedented. However, we approached the months of January, February and the first half of March 2020 with optimism. Our achievements were indeed up on the previous year. However, this momentum will come to an abrupt end. The appearance of the first case of COVID 19 in Tunisia on 2 March, as well as the accelerated spread of the disease in Europe, particularly in Italy, will lead the Tunisian authorities to gradually close the country’s air, sea and land borders as of 13 March, declare a curfew on 18 March, and impose a general lockdown as of 20 March. As a result, we were forced to close our establishments and assist our clients in repatriating them to their respective countries. Overnight, our operations were reduced to zero. The country was virtually at a standstill, and our hospitals were fully mobilized to face this health crisis. The question on the minds of Tunisians was: when will the peak occur? In fact, the peak will not happen.
Tunisia, one of the first countries to adopt measures to deal with the crisis, is doing rather well, at least compared to its neighbors and European countries. How is the summer season shaping up? For Tunisia, for you in particular?
Indeed, Tunisia adopted measures very early on to deal with the looming health crisis, as early as 3 February, after the repatriation of Tunisians living in Wuhan, China. All the measures taken subsequently had the effect of containing any spread of the virus and bringing the crisis under control. To date, there have been 50 deaths, 1132 confirmed cases and 1023 recoveries. The situation is therefore under control, and it must be acknowledged that the management of this first phase by the Tunisian government was a success. As a tourist operator, this success is a positive achievement on which we can build a strategy for the future.
Tunisia is now entering a second, rather delicate phase. Hotels, cafés and restaurants have received authorization to reopen as of June 04. Thus, we have reopened two of our establishments in order to welcome our local clientele. For us, this is a first step that allows us to gradually restore the confidence of our customers. However, many hotels in Tunisia are still closed, and still hesitate to reopen. Any real recovery in tourism is essentially linked to the opening of borders, especially air borders. The good news is that Tunisia has decided to reopen its air and sea borders as of 27 June. To this end, the Ministry of Health has classified the countries that have opened their borders into three categories: green, orange, and others. Residents of countries labeled green are allowed to travel to Tunisia without constraints. This is the case, among others, of Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Austria and Croatia. These countries are our traditional partners. However, this measure will not automatically have a tangible impact for the months of July and August. We can expect the beginning of a recovery in September. What is certain is that the coming months will be extremely difficult. But in order to overcome the crises, it is up to us to be resilient.
The risk is that, by welcoming European tourists, the virus could be imported again. What precautions are recommended by the authorities? The measures that you yourselves put in place?
The Ministry of Tourism has drawn up an anti-covid 19 sanitary protocol, which is a procedural manual detailing all the precautions and hygiene measures to be observed during the reception, transport and accommodation of our clients. Among the most drastic measures is the requirement for hotels to respect a maximum occupancy capacity of 50%. For our establishments, this means that we will not exceed 200 guests. As our hotels are generous in terms of space, there is no risk of overcrowding. We have establishments on a human scale, and this tends to reassure our customers. In addition, before the reopening of our establishments, our employees received training in order to learn about the anti-covid 19 measures to be respected. All our employees are required to wear protective masks mandatorily. Hydroalcoholic gels are available to our customers in all common areas. Our rooms are disinfected according to a very precise protocol. On arrival, an agent controls the temperature of each guest. Likewise, at the swimming pool, or at the beach, a deckchair and an umbrella are exclusively reserved for each guest during their stay. We have reduced the capacity of our restaurants in order to respect the rules of distance between tables. Furthermore, it should be pointed out that our establishments have the full-time services of a doctor and a hygienist who ensure that the hygiene rules are respected. The safety of our customers and employees, as well as the quality of service, are our major concern.
This is the approach adopted by the Tunisian authorities, to save the season, to highlight “health tourism”. Tunisia does indeed have experience in this field?
The Tunisian authorities are aware that the resumption of tourism depends on a balanced control of this health crisis. It is important to reconcile the economic imperative without jeopardizing health security. To this end, the Tunisian authorities are making great efforts to impose Tunisia as a Covid Safe destination. This is why the Ministry of Tourism has imposed on the hotels the respect of a rather strict protocol. But the respect of sanitary measures is not new for our hotels. For a long time now, our hotels have been subject to the HACCP protocol concerning food safety. Standards have been established in order to reduce the risk of legionnaire’s disease contagion. Regular analyses of the quality of the water in our swimming pools are mandatorily carried out. Hotels with thalassotherapy centers are accustomed to checks carried out by the Ministry of Health to ensure compliance with hygiene measures. This experience enables us to adapt more easily to the constraints and requirements prescribed by the anti-covid 19 precautionary measures.
This crisis is also an opportunity for renewal. To conclude, how do you think tourism will evolve in the coming months and years?
Undoubtedly, the current health crisis will have a heavy impact on Tunisian tourism. In fact, it is important to point out that Tunisian tourism has been facing structural problems for years. Since the 80s, our tourism has revolved around the seaside product and aimed at attracting a large mass of tourists. Unfortunately, not all attempts at reform have been successful due to a lack of will. Today, this model is clearly called into question by this health crisis. Following the example of the airlines that have reduced their fleet of Airbus A380s, welcoming more than a thousand customers in large tourist complexes is likely to give rise to some reticence in terms of health safety. At the same time, continuing to remain essentially dependent on a single tourist product, in this case the beach resort product, is now endangering our sector. The Covid 19 pandemic is pushing all players in the sector to undertake reforms and develop a new vision of tourism, in line with the demands of the 21st century. Tunisia has many assets: a rich archaeological heritage highlighting a flourishing Carthaginian, Roman, Byzantine, and Arab-Islamic history. Varied landscapes ranging from the green Atlas Mountains to the magnificent expanses of the Sahara. Numerous thermal springs around which tourism can develop, in parallel with thalassotherapy, already well present in our country. In short, Tunisia is a destination with many assets, while benefiting from the fact that it is located on average two hours by plane from the main European cities. This proximity to Europe is a fundamental asset that should be highlighted. It is therefore up to us to turn this crisis into an opportunity.
“The philosophy of our chain has always been to refuse the inexorable advance of the industrialization of tourism and to prefer to invest in a choice of excellence and quality, evolving with the desires of a clientele ever more demanding on the quality of its leisure”.
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