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Tue 21 Jun 2011 10:53 AM

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Bargains tempt some wary tourists to North Africa

Travel agents in crisis-hit countries targeting couples with upmarket, last minute trips sold on the cheap

Bargains tempt some wary tourists to North Africa
Some tour operators say they expect Egypt to recover faster than Tunisia thanks to its more predictable climate and its major tourist attractions such as the pyramids (Getty Images)

The
tanks parked beside Tunisia's tourism ministry and the capital's main souk were
probably not quite what travel agents had in mind when they said better
security was the way to tempt back holiday makers.

Four
months after a popular uprising toppled Tunisia's ruler, the country is slowly
trying to restore stability, choose a new government and rebuild its economy
with a focus on its tourism sector, the country's biggest employer after
farming.

But
with foreign arrivals down 50 percent as it enters the summer season,
post-revolution Tunisia is not seeing the kind of support it would like from
Europe - namely the usual flow of thousands of tourists from France, Spain and
Germany.

"Tunisians
feel very let down because they were the first ones to start the uprising, to
fight for democracy, and now they are forgotten," said tour group manager
Can Deniz, strolling through the winding streets of Sidi Bou Said village.

Deniz
is with the only foreign group in the village, which usually draws hundreds of
tourists daily for its beautiful views over the Bay of Tunis, white and blue
houses and lively market.

However,
the people he is browsing the souk with are not tourists but other tour guides.
They are on a trip sponsored by the Tunisian tourism board and national airline
in an attempt to show the country is safe and worth offering to customers again.

Tourism
usually contributes 6-7 percent of gross domestic product and the sector is an
important provider of temporary work in Tunisia where 14 percent are unemployed
-- one of the major factors behind the revolution.

Deniz
said agents were targeting couples with upmarket, last minute trips sold on the
cheap, such as a week in a five star coastal hotel for 200 British pounds
($322), or half price.

"People
are being drawn by price rather than any real interest in the country," he
said sadly.

Visits
may be down by half, but some are still coming to the North African country --
252,000 in March -- despite the military presence, occasional curfews, taxi
strikes blocking the main road to the airport and war over the border in Libya.

In
the capital's Bardo Museum, home to Roman mosaics and statues, 26-year-old
banker Francois-Xavier Marchand from Paris is taking a few days to explore
Tunis ahead of work meetings.

"My
company has an office in Tunis, so I know people here and took advice before
travelling. I am not scared but it is fair to say that I am not going for
strolls in the centre," he said, admitting he would not have come if it
wasn't for work.

An
hour's drive away in the coastal town of Hammamet, hoteliers fill rooms by
slashing prices by 20-30 percent.

In
the luxury hotel El Mouradi, where occupancy is half its normal levels in May,
you can find bargain-hunters and seasoned travellers relaxing under parasols by
the pool.

"You
can see the evidence that people are scared," said Frenchman Alain Barret,
gesturing at the empty pool and vacant deckchairs surrounding him and his wife
Francoise, who are on their third holiday in Hammamet.

"After
all the efforts the Tunisians have made, now people are worried about its
proximity to Libya. A terrible sadness has descended on this place," he
said.

But
the couple say they feel far enough away from Tunisia's problems to enjoy
themselves, even if market merchants are more aggressive as they desperately
compete for customers.

"We
are here really to enjoy ourselves, for purely selfish reasons," Francoise
said, dangling a henna-tattooed arm over the side of her deck chair.

In
Egypt, where protestors inspired by the Tunisians ousted President Hosni
Mubarak in February, the number of tourists visiting the following month
dropped 60 percent to 535,000 from 1.3 million a year earlier. Russians in
particular stayed away.

But
some tour operators say they expect Egypt to recover faster than Tunisia thanks
to its more predictable climate and its major tourist attractions such as the
pyramids.

Only
three months ago, Tahrir Square was the epicentre of protests that routed
Mubarak -- dubbed a modern-day pharaoh by many Egyptians -- but for tourists
passing through the square now, those momentous events are not much of a draw.

"The
revolution hasn't really been a big thing for us, other than the fact it's
enabled us to get really good prices everywhere," said British backpacker
Tina Winn, 31 who had been able to stay in four star hotels at hostel room
rates.

"Cairo
for us was about the pyramids and shopping."

Tourism
is Egypt's top foreign currency earner, generating over a tenth of gross
domestic product. As in Tunisia, it is a major employer -- providing one in
eight jobs in a country also beset with high unemployment.

In
the narrow alleys of Khan el-Khalili souk, once a hive of tourists, 31-year-old
Khaled Mahmoud works in a shop selling sequinned belly-dancer outfits. He said the
revolution had shaken his business and he was struggling to make ends meet.

He
used to make around 40,000 Egyptian pounds ($6,720) per month before the
revolution, selling the sparkly designs to tourists. Now he is lucky to scrape
together 2,000 pounds.

Picking
out one beaded costume, he said he used to be able to sell it for 350 Egyptian
pounds, but now he is willing to part with it for 250, for only a sliver of
profit.

Tourists
delivered by bus from sea resort Sharm el-Sheikh for a day-trip to Cairo were
largely indifferent to the revolution. Many of them had booked holidays before
the unrest, though some had leapt at the opportunity of a discount getaway.

"We're
on our honeymoon, so we wanted somewhere that was warm this time of year,"
said Steve Collins, adding that he and his wife felt completely safe, having
checked government travel advice before booking the holiday.

The
British couple were sheltering from the sun by the entrance to the Egyptian
Museum, just metres away from the blackened husk of Egypt's former ruling party
headquarters, torched by protestors two weeks before Mubarak's fall.

"Apart
from that burnt-out building there's not much evidence of the revolution left
really," Collins said.

 

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