Tunisia pins tourism hopes on 'unafraid' Russians

·3 min read

With its economy hit hard by the pandemic, Tunisia is counting on Russians and eastern Europeans to salvage its tourist sector whose employees fear hunger more than Covid-19.

"The need to work is stronger than the fear of being contaminated," said lifeguard Aymen Abdallah, glancing at a half-empty beach in the Mediterranean resort of Sousse where Russians are making a comeback.

"If we don't work, we'll starve to death," added Abdallah, donning sunglasses and a mask.

The lifeguard is relieved to be back at work after an idle eight months. But "normally, the beach would have been full at this time", he sighed.

The North African country reopened its borders to tour operators in late April but then ordered a new week-long partial lockdown at the start of May because of a spike in coronavirus cases.

Up to 10 flights a week, mostly from Russia and eastern Europe, have in the past month been touching down at Enfidha, an airport serving Tunisia's tourism towns.

But revenues are down more than 60 percent on 2019, before the pandemic hit.

Hotels are authorised to operate at 50 percent of capacity but are struggling to reach that level.

"There's not much profit with just 30 percent hotel occupancy," lamented Adel Mlayah, deputy director of the high-end Mouradi Palace in Sousse.

The hotel normally employs at least 260 staff, but this year no more than 120 are working.

- 'Not scared' -

Eastern Europe also came to the rescue after the 2015 jihadist attacks on the capital's Bardo Museum and in Sousse that killed 60 people, all but one of them tourists, bringing the crucial sector of Tunisia's economy to its knees.

While visitors from most West countries are deterred from travel by their governments, those from Russia, the Czech Republic and Poland appeared to have few such qualms.

"There are not that many countries where we can go," said Andrej Radiokove, newly arrived from Moscow.

"Turkey closed its borders -- that's why we chose Tunisia."

Like most of the others in his tour group, he has not been vaccinated.

"We had Covid two months ago, so we're not scared," he said.

Only around two percent of Tunisia's population has so far been vaccinated.

The pandemic has claimed more than 12,000 lives in the country of 12 million people. But the high local toll does not appear to have deterred the sun-seekers.

Around the pool of the Mouradi Palace, a clutch of them swayed to the rhythm of Russian electronic music.

"Customers from eastern Europe are less than reticent, less concerned about the pandemic," said Zied Maghrebi, marketing director of the nearby Movenpick hotel.

"We have fallen back on these customers because they're not afraid to travel."

- Battered economy -

Serafim Stoynovski, a 22-year-old Bulgarian law student, explained that he chose Tunisia because "restrictions here are not as strict" as in other countries.

"We can go out for a walk, go to a restaurant or have a coffee if we want," he said.

Unlike other tourists who have to self-isolate for five to seven days in government-assigned hotels at their own expense, those in tour groups only need a negative PCR test.

Excursions, however, are restricted to tours organised by travel agents who adhere to health protocols, said Sousse tourism commissioner Taoufik Gaied.

He is holding out hope for one million tourists in 2021, still just a fraction of the nine million who came two years ago.

A decade since its 2011 revolution, Tunisia's economic woes have been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown measures.

The International Monetary Fund expects the country's economy will grow 3.8 percent this year, making up little of the ground lost by an unprecedented 8.9 percent contraction in 2020.

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