FEATURE-Ramadan exodus hurts Tunisia’s tourist industry

* Muslims cut vacations short to mark holy month at home

* Hoteliers say Muslim visitor numbers sharply down

* Tunisia depends on tourism for foreign currency (Read more about trading foreign currency., jobs

By Tarek Amara

TUNIS, Aug 15 (BestGrowthStock) – It is the height of the summer
season in Tunisia, the skies are blue and the warm Mediterranean
Sea is beckoning, but Rabeh Lounassa is cutting short his
vacation and heading home to Algeria.

“I’d like to stay here to carry on with my holiday but
Ramadan is a holy month and I usually spend it with my family,”
he said as he waited for a shared taxi to take him back across
the border to the Algerian town of Annaba.

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan this year falls right in
the middle of the holiday season and hundreds of thousands of
visitors have packed their bags and gone home — leaving
Tunisia’s tourism industry to count the cost.

Tunisia is particularly exposed to the drop-off in business
because out of the seven million visitors who come in here in an
average year, about three million are Muslims from neighbouring
Libya and Algeria.

So while tourists from Europe have stayed on, most visitors
from Libya and Algeria have already gone. As a result, many
hotels, restaurants beaches and cafes are half empty, according
to resort officials and hoteliers.

“It seems that the season has finished even before it
started,” said Imed Zid, a hotelier in Sousse, a resort town
about 150 km (93 miles) south of the Tunisian capital.

“Most of our North African clients have already left,” he
said. “Despite the advertisements, the discounts, the special
activities planned, Arab tourists insist on going back home.”

Ramadan is traditionally spent at home because the month
includes a strong emphasis on family gatherings.

The timing of Ramadan shifts slightly each year in relation
to the Gregorian calendar used in most of the world because it
is fixed according to the Islamic calendar, which counts 354 or
355 days in every year.

Tunisia needs tourists. Unlike Algeria and Libya, the
country of 10 million people does not produce large amounts of
oil and gas. Tourism is the biggest foreign currency (Read more about trading foreign currency. earner and
the second biggest employer after farming.

Each year tourism contributes about $2.4 billion to the
state budget, or about 20 percent of revenues.

In the hope of protecting that income, the sector has been
trying to persuade Muslims that they can mark Ramadan and be on
holiday at the same time.

RAMADAN VACATION

The tourism ministry said hotels will serve “suhoor”, or
pre-dawn breakfast, musical evenings will be laid on and
swimming pools and beaches will stay open at night so people can
make the most of the time when they are not fasting.

Slim Tlatli, the tourism minister, said taxis and buses
would be provided to ferry tourists from their hotels to nearby
mosques for “Taraweeh” prayers, the special night-time prayers
offered during Ramadan.

There has also been a marketing drive, with advertisements
run on Algerian radio and special deals offered to travel
agents, local newspapers have reported.

But at the tourist resort of Hammamet, which is mostly
frequented by Libyans and Algerians, the campaign was not enough
to prevent a sharp fall in bookings.

“It is clear that the number of Arab tourists will fall by
at least 50 percent during the month,” said Fethi Trabelsi, a
hotel official at the tourist resort of Hammamet, which is
mostly frequented by Libyans and Algerians.

“The bookings are already down and many hotels are beginning
to reduce their prices” he said.

It is a problem that Tunisia’s tourism industry will have to
get used to because Ramadan will clash with the tourism season
for another six or seven years.

This year the holy month began in Tunisia on Aug. 11 and
each year it will get earlier, by increments of 10 or 11 days.

“Tunisia must work to diversify its tourism products and not
adopt temporary solutions,” Mohamed Bargaoui, an expert in the
tourism sector, told Reuters.

Waiting for his taxi to head back to Algeria, Rabeh Lounassa
said he needed to spend at least some of Ramadan with his
family. But he said he could be tempted to return. “Maybe I’ll
come back in 10 days. We’ll see,” he said.
(Editing by Charles Dick)

FEATURE-Ramadan exodus hurts Tunisia’s tourist industry