"When God made Tunisia," says Fakhreddine Messai, director of the National Tourism Office, "he must have had tourism in mind." It is difficult to argue with him. Consider a country with 1,300 km of beautiful sun-baked beaches; crystal clear coral-fringed seas; romantic oases straight out of the Arabian Nights; a history that is 3,000 years old; 20,000 cultural sites; 400 annual festivals and some of the friendliest and most welcoming people you are ever likely to meet - and you must surely be looking at a tourist destination made in heaven.
"But that is not all," says Messai. "We are only two hours away from most European capitals - Rome is only one hour away." This proximity to one of the most travel-conscious regions of the world, added to the low cost of a luxurious holiday, has made Tunisia one of the fastest growing tourist destinations in the world.
"Last year, we received 4.4m tourists," adds Messai, "which was 10% more than the previous year. We expect to welcome 10% more visitors this year - which will take tourist arrival figures beyond the 5m mark."
Tourism generated $1.6bn in revenue last year and although it contributes 6% to the GDP, it provides employment for well over 300,000 people. A good deal of energy is now being devoted to developing tourism in the arid south of the country. "The aim is not only to provide exciting new forms of tourism to our visitors, it is also to raise the living standards of the people in that area," says Messai.
Developments in the south have already had several positive effects on the lives of the people there as well as on the environment. Artesian wells, some going down to 270m, have provided irrigation not only for greenhouses in which to grow winter vegetables but also much needed water for date palms in the oases. Locals have been able to double or triple their incomes by using their spare time making carpets, handicrafts and acting as guides to the increasing number of visitors. Several five star hotels have been constructed but all have had to blend into the environment.
The south is rapidly becoming a mecca for big-budget films following the world-wide success of films like the Star Wars trilogy and the Oscar-winning The English Patient. Currently shooting on location is the French director, Cedric Klapisch, who has Jean Paul Belmondo playing in a futuristic film titled Peut etre in which Paris is engulfed in sand. "These projects have not only been very stimulating to our own film...