Ahmed Diab is busy browsing news related to the movement of tourism and airports on his mobile phone as the sun seeped into his empty shop.
As the first days of the warm autumn season unfold on the Sidi Bou Said plateau in Tunisia, Ahmed spends most of the day sitting in front of his shop selling antiques and handicrafts.
The shop is located opposite a garage dedicated to tourist buses, but this year it is almost rare for tourist delegations to come to Sidi Bou Said, one of the most popular destinations in Tunisia.
The Corona pandemic has caused tourism to shrink by more than 90% since March 2020, and the deadly virus has pushed the activities of craftsmen to the edge of the precipice, and it is now hostage to the evolution of the war on the pandemic.
Ahmed told German News Agency, “The crisis did not exclude any sector. We are all affected in the tourism sector. There are those who have closed their place and lost hope in returning this year, and there are those who have closed permanently after suffering great losses.”
Ahmed added, “It was not a temporary crisis, the situation lasted too long, and we do not know which direction the war against the Corona virus will take in the future.”
While the bazaars scattered in Sidi Bou Said were empty of tourists and customers, most of the visitors who came to enjoy the sea breezes extending to the alleys of the village built over a hill are Tunisians, and only some of them adhered to physical distancing and wearing protective masks.
Ahmed’s shop does not seem alone to be suffering under the crisis in Sidi Bou Said, as luxury restaurants, hotel residences and art galleries are almost empty and have been suffering from recession for months, and some have chosen to temporarily close and start seasonal restoration and maintenance operations in preparation for the tourist season in 2021.
Those coming to Sidi Bou Said do not miss the opportunity to buy the pies that its shops are famous for, and the popularity of cafes, but most of them refrain from acquiring artisans’ products for their exorbitant price.
Hassan Mastouri – a visitor, accompanied by his two sons and his wife – said, “We came on a family visit from Bizerte, and we wanted to spend the rest of the day in Sidi Bou Said. The region is charming even in times of tourist recession. It is clear that the crisis affected everyone, but it is fleeting.”
Hassan added, carrying ice cream to his two sons, “We seek to enjoy time here, to relieve pressure, but we try to arrange our priorities. Artisanal products are not a priority now.”
Tunisia opened its airports and ports after a successful closure period that lasted nearly 3 months, and international flights have resumed since June 27, while the government has pumped nearly 175 million euros to help craftsmen withstand the crisis, and to maintain job opportunities estimated at 400,000 in the tourism sector. .
However, sector activities remained faltering even during the height of the summer tourism season between June and August.
During this period, the number of foreign tourists coming to Tunisia through irregular trips did not exceed about 70,000 until the end of last August, a number that is not comparable to the millions of tourists from European countries and neighboring countries in such a period of each year.
The university professor specializing in tourism, Moez Kassem, indicated – in a previous interview with Al-Jazeera Net – that the proportion of European tourists represents about 30% of the total number of arrivals to the Tunisian tourist destination.
“Even with the arrival of some tourists, this will not benefit the craftsmen, markets and tourist attractions, because most of them stay in hostels and are afraid to walk around,” said Ahmed Diab.
“We had hope after the opening of the borders that we would witness a recovery period, but the second wave of the Corona epidemic complicated the situation, now this year has become forgotten,” Diab added.
Hopes for recovery
“I have been working for about 40 years in tourism and I have not experienced a difficult season like 2020, but we have confidence that things will be better in the future after Corona, tourism is a vital sector in Tunisia and has a solid base,” said the owner of a neighboring shop, who sat next to Ahmed.
After years of recovering from the effects of the major terrorist attacks in 2015, which left about 60 tourists dead in two attacks that targeted a museum and a hostel, Tunisian tourism today faces a more dangerous microscopic enemy, as it does not know how long its effects will last.
According to central bank data, tourism revenues declined by more than 60% until last August, by 1.5 billion Tunisian dinars ($ 550 million), compared to nearly 4 billion Tunisian dinars in the same period of 2019, which witnessed a record number of tourists exceeding 9 million.
Muhammad Ali al-Tumi – who served as Minister of Tourism until August in 2020 – told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa that “the beginning was good in 2020, during the months of January and February last we achieved a 28% increase compared to the same period in 2019 before the outbreak of the virus.” “.
After the outbreak of the virus in several states, Toumi expects that tourism losses by the end of 2020 will reach about two billion dollars.
To reduce the losses as much as possible, most hostels on the east coast were forced to announce cuts by half for Tunisian tourists.
“Usually the hostel is full of Russian tourists, but this year we canceled most of the external reservations due to the pandemic, we are still working with the internal market, and we have achieved good numbers,” the director of the reservations department at the Aqua Park hostel in the coastal city of Harun told the German agency.
Like the “Aqua Park” hostel, Tunisian tourists saved most of the hostels that remained active in tourist areas such as Monastir, Sousse, Mahdia, Djerba, and Hammamet from the risk of bankruptcy, but it is not known how long they will last after the peak period of the tourist season.
Tourism Minister Habib Ammar said, “The impact of Covid-19 on the tourism sector has been significant and is expected to continue for months, but we are sure that the sector will recover quickly once the pandemic ends.”
“We have structural difficulties in the sector, but Tunisia remains a major destination for tourism in the Mediterranean basin, and it is difficult to ignore them,” Ammar said.