Following a tumultuous period of revolution and terrorist attacks, the once-popular Mediterranean holiday destination of Tunisia is making a case for the tourists to return.
In January 2011, the ousting of Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali triggered a wave of uprisings across North Africa known as the Arab Spring. The period of turmoil that followed the revolution was further hampered by a series of shocking attacks by Islamic extremists, including the killing of 38 tourists (of which 30 were Brittish) at a beach resort near Sousse in June 2015.
These factors, as well as the generally fearful geopolitical climate of the times – and despite a number attacks occurring across Europe’s main cities proving that tragedy can strike anywhere – have meant Tunisia’s tourism industry has fallen to its feet. For a country that relies heavily on inbound visitors, with 15% of the country’s economy depending on tourism, it’s no wonder the country’s new democratically-elected government is doing its utmost to encourage back the droves of Brits, Germans and French that not long ago were swarming to Tunisia for its balmy Mediterranean climate and good value for money.
There is hope, however. Despite continued recommendations against travelling to Tunisia from the FCO, recent figures indicate a slight resurgence in visitors. Some 231,336 European tourist entries were recorded in January 2017, up 10.5% compared to the same month in 2016, according to statistics from the Tunisian National Tourist Office (ONTT). The early signs of a recovery are evident, particularly amongst the French and Britons, joining a high number of Russians who have not been deterred by the threat of terrorism.
There has been a significant effort by the Tunisian government to win back the trust of potential tourists. Increased safety measures at hotels and popular tourist areas include security wands, metal detectors and under-car mirrors, as well as a very visible police and security presence.
The upside of these conditions, for visitors at least, is that now may be the best time to visit this unique part of north Africa – whilst beaches are still somewhat deserted, there’s an abundance of good deals on flights and accommodation, and some of the world’s best cultural experiences are waiting to be rediscovered.
A relatively small country located in northern Africa, bordered by Libya to the east and Algeria to the west, Tunisia is awash with remains of its colourful past. Just to the north of capital Tunis, lays the ruined imperial city of Carthage, the centre of the ancient Carthaginian civilisation, which was destroyed and rebuilt by the Romans. Along with the Romans, the Phoenicians, Vandals, Byzantines, Spaniards, Turks, and the French have each impressed their mark on this storied nation, with numerous well-preserved ruins and relics from these times on show at the Bardo National Museum and at seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
These cultural treasures, combined with an expansive coastline littered with beautiful Mediterranean beaches, mean the future is bright for Tunisia. Away from the historical sites and family-friendly beach resorts, however, there are a number of reasons to visit Tunisia that might not immediately spring to mind. Some that the more sophisticated traveller might do well to take heed of.
Thalassotherapy comes from the Greek word ‘thalassa’, meaning “sea”, and ‘therap’, meaning “treat”. It is the use of sea water, sea air, and marine products in a medicinal setting. The roots of Thalassotherapy reach back to the Romans, who brought the practice to Tunisia 146 years before Christ, and it was later popularised in France and Britain in the 19th century, although its application in a health spa-type setting is relatively new.
Tunisia began promoting thalassotherapy as therapeutic tourism in 1994, and now hosts many of the best thalassotherapy spas in the world, often found at luxury hotels. A number of state-of-the-art clinics are found in Sousse, Hammamet, Djerba, and Gammarth, to name but a few places, and with high-quality treatments at remarkably lower prices than at comparable European centres, Tunisia is a world-leader in the aquatic therapy. Tunisia’s best thalassotherapy spas usually incorporate numerous saltwater pools at different temperatures and with different mineral contents, steam room and saunas, hammam, jet baths, massages and wraps.
One of Tunisia’s best thalassotherapy spas is the Marine Spa found at Mövenpick Resort & Marine Spa Sousse. The Spa is gloriously appointed and the treatments are invigorating. It is also located in the best hotel in the city, the Mövenpick Sousse, which looks like a huge modern-day castle, backs out onto a stunning beach, and contains four amazing restaurants.
Again, Tunisia has been producing olive oil since the Romans came in 146 bc. It is now the most important olive-growing nation of the southern Mediterranean region, even ranking as the world’s second-largest producer for the 2014/2015 season behind Spain. Tunisian olive oil is unique, revered for its buttery taste and light texture. For a long time, it has been exported in bulk to Italy to be blended into ‘Italian’ olive oils in order to increase their quality. About 80 percent of Tunisia’s olive oil is currently exported to the EU, namely Spain and Italy, who often take the accolades.
Olive oil is a proud export from a proud country, and now that production rules and labelling certifications for extra virgin and organic have been tightened, expect to see more high-end olive oils candidly labelled as Tunisian on the shelves of your local health shop.
The best thing about Tunisian olive oil is how it’s made. The production process across the country is mostly organic. Unlike in Europe, Tunisian growers use only the essential machinery, even collecting the harvest by hand, and seldom use any sort of pesticide on their crop. Tunisia’s warm and sunny climate takes care of the rest, resulting in a healthful and deliciously smooth oil.
Homage must also be paid to Tunisian wine, which, if you’re an oenophile, you should make a point to experience at some time in your life. The geographical location of Tunisia in a corner of North Africa gives it a prime wine-producing climate. Close enough to the equator for the sunshine and heat, and with sobering winds coming in from the Mediterranean, wine production blossoms along the rolling hills of the country’s northern peninsula, Cap Bon.
Wine-making in Tunisia dates back to the Phoenicians and the Punic era, when agronomist Mago, who lived in Carthage, wrote a detailed treaty about agronomy and viticulture from which the techniques are still used to this day. Despite production diminishing under Muslim rule in the 7th century AD, wine-production persisted and flourished, especially under French rule between 1881 and 1956. Over the past decade, the quality of Tunisian wine has risen greatly. The state-run monopoly on production has been disintegrated, paving the way for more than 10 ambitious privately-owned wineries to start producing.
Although primarily Muslim, Tunisians are proud inhabitants of the Mediterranean and they appreciate good wine, particularly Rosé, which accounts for a large proportion of the nation’s production. However, discretion is advised, and take note that most convenience shops don’t sell any alcohol, it’s only available at larger supermarkets, and isn’t sold on Fridays and during Ramadan.
Our pick of must-try Tunisian wines is Neferis Cuvée Magnifique D’Istinto Tunisie 2008, from the gorgeous Domain Neferis winery in Cap Bon. It’s is a deep, rich red, not too sweet, and a delicious indulgence for when the heat of the day subsides and the coolness of the evening begins to invigorate you.
Also try Gris de Tunisie, or grey Tunisian wine. It’s the country’s most famous wine, and has a dusky rosé colour and a fruity flavour, best served with spicy seafood. Chateau Mornags, another popular rosé, produced in the Mornag region in Northern Tunisia, is also good. It has a subtle, crisp taste.
Tunisia is a special country, bursting with flavour and adventure. With heartwarming hospitality at its core, an ideal climate and a poignant history, it’s also one of the best places on the globe for authentic experiences – whether it’s the world-class spas, the organic cuisine or fine wine. So, maybe it’s time to look past the sensationalist headlines and rediscover the ancient gem that is Tunisia.