Tunisia and Morocco both set great store by their ability to attract hard currency from the tourist industry. Like Egypt, however, they are discovering to their cost that tourism is highly vulnerable to upheavals in the region and the perceived threat from militant Islam. Alfred Hermida in Tunis surveys the volatile state of the tourism business.
AS A REFLECTION of the importance North African governments attach to the tourism industry, Morocco has launched a three-year multi-million dollar advertising campaign to promote the country as a holiday destination. Tourism accounts for more than 10% of Morocco's foreign currency earnings. The industry generates several hundred thousand jobs directly and many more through secondary industries, such as handicrafts, not to mention the thousands of unofficial guides who hound tourists in the major cities.
The picture is similar in Tunisia. Last year the country earned more than one billion dollars from the four million visitors to the country. This accounted for 20% of Tunisia's foreign revenue and offers work for some 200,000 people directly and thousands more indirectly. Many unemployed young men, known locally as "beznessa", spend the summer months in the beach resorts of Hammamet and Sousse, offering their (sometimes dubious) services to foreign visitors.
Both Tunisia and Morocco regard tourism as playing a key role in their economic development. Algeria has only recently latched onto the tourism bandwagon, after seeing the success of its neighbors. North African countries are now trying to stimulate the industry by offering low interest rates for loans to invest in tourist projects, and many products linked to the industry are exempt from taxes.
Morocco and Tunisia have also tried to diversify the industry, moving beyond low-cost package tours aimed at Europeans in search of sun, sea and sand. One special interest group targeted by both countries is golf enthusiasts. Many luxury hotels in Morocco offer golfing facilities which are comparable to the best in Europe, or lay on special transport to nearby links. Tunisia is following suit, by improving existing golf courses and building new ones at holiday resorts such as Tabarka in the northwest of the country.
Tunisia also hopes to increase tourism by opening up the south to foreign visitors. Although only the outskirts of the Sahara are within Tunisia's borders, the desert is easily accessible and four new luxury hotels are being built in the...