Tunisia's economy is getting a helpful boost from tourism. It won't last long-term if the government doesn't get its public finances in order.
Tunisia is set for a strong tourist season with visitor numbers nearing pre-pandemic levels, a government official told Reuters, bringing some badly needed foreign currency into an economy mired in crisis as bankruptcy threatens state finances.
Tourism typically accounted for around 7 percent of Tunisia’s gross domestic product but visitor numbers collapsed during the COVID pandemic, putting extra strain on an economy that was already in trouble.
However, authorities now expect about 8.5 million tourists this year, 90 percent of the 9.4 million in 2019, the last year before the pandemic, and a big jump from the 6.4 million last year, Tourism Ministry official Lotfi Mani said.
“Indications suggest a good season, with an increase in the number of reservations,” he said. Tourism revenue to the end of May was about 1.7 billion dinars ($550 million), a 57 percent increase from the same period last year.
Even a very good tourism season would only go a small way towards alleviating the massive hole in Tunisia’s public finances, which has led to shortages of some foods and medicine, or to strengthen its overall economy.
Foreign currency reserves have fallen to 91 days of exports from 123 days a year ago and credit ratings agency Fitch has graded Tunisian sovereign debt as junk, signalling market fears it may default on foreign loans.
Donors are waging a last-ditch effort to persuade President Kais Saied to agree terms with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout, but it is far from clear if any agreement can be reached.
Though Tunisia has a wealth of historic heritage from ancient civilisations, Berber tribes, Islamic dynasties and Mediterranean naval powers, tourism there is mostly focused on beach resorts and short-stop cruise ships.
“It’s a very beautiful place,” said Polish tourist Anna Glan in the whitewashed village of Sidi Bou Said overlooking the glittering blue bay of Tunis.
For the village’s many businesses that cater to tourists, their return is good news, even if Tunisia’s overall economic outlook is increasingly bleak.
“We’re eagerly awaiting a good tourism season and we’re very optimistic because the signs are positive,” said Tawfik el-Hakil, frying traditional donuts for visitors in Sidi Bou Said. “Tour ships are coming and hotel reservations are full.”
(Reporting by Tarek Amara and Jihed Abidellaoui)
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