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”Recovery of tourism activity could only be gradual ”, says Director General of ONTT

In an exclusive interview with African Manager, Abdellatif Hmam, Director General of the Tunisian National Tourist Office (ONTT) recognized that Tunisia is currently in a post-shock situation.

But this crisis can be an opportunity to review our strategy so that Tunisia remains a destination of choice. According to him, this is a strategic step since the resumption of activity would be gradual.


How is the tourism sector?

This is an industry that is currently growing internationally. This is a sector that has shown sustainable growth throughout the years.

Nationally, however, tourism has experienced difficulties related primarily to the transitional situation. These problems are added to other structural problems.

In addition to these constraints, Tunisia has suffered two major shocks. The first took place in March and which targeted the Bardo Museum, considered one of the symbols of the State…

The second hit, on June 26, the Sousse region where terrorists targeted foreign holidaymakers. The toll was heavy with the death of 38 tourists.

From that date, all figures are appreciated in the context of a post-shock.

What about the achieved figures?

At the date of August 20, 2015, arrivals of non residents were down 23% compared to the same period in 2014.

On the European markets, the trend is downwards and this decline ranges between 15% and 50%.

However, an increase was recorded in several Arab markets. Starting with the Algerians whose flow posted a growth of 16%. This is the same for the Moroccans, Saudis and Bahrainis who have achieved respective increases of 35%, 10% and 26%. There has been a solidarity effect from several Arab markets.

In terms of tourism revenues, we deplore a shortfall of 26% until August 10, 2015, and that, compared to the same period last year.

And what about Britain?

The flow has not stopped although this country has imposed a travel restriction to nationals wishing to visit Tunisia.

We are currently working with leading tour operators for a possible recovery. We are also trying to examine the forms of support so that these tour operators schedule the Tunisia destination. Once that travel restrictions are lifted, we will be ready to regain this market.

In a sluggish economy, is it possible to meet this challenge?

We need to know that we are still in a post-shock situation as we continue to suffer attacks. As already mentioned by the President of the Republic, we are at war against terrorism and that is why the figures are appreciated in this context. Therefore, one understands the reaction of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office especially that the majority of victims are Britons.

What had happened in Sousse has created a widespread psychosis not only with foreigners but also among Tunisians. Therefore, the recovery can be only gradual. It is already conditioned by the fact that people have more confidence in our security system and in our organization.

Gradually, as this sense of security develops, the tourist flow will certainly gradually resume

How will we regain the trust of others when we are undergoing more terrorist attacks?

We never said that we will provide security at 100%. We have said that we are at war against terrorism and things are being taken seriously, and that at the highest state level. For this reason, very courageous decisions have been taken to ensure better surveillance of our borders. Add to this the excellent cooperation with Algeria without forgetting that the security forces are trying to achieve victories every day.

Tunisia with its modest means makes every effort to ensure the safety of our citizens and our visitors. We are currently dealing with the security problem in a determined and serious manner to meet this challenge.

It is true that we go through a difficult time and nobody can ignore it. It is equally true that in terms of quantitative logic of figures, we are receiving fewer tourists. However, this crisis can be an opportunity to review the way we do, improve our product, diversify our markets internationally and better our effectiveness in terms of intervention.

It’s now or never to work on a gradual recovery in economic activity, and that, in relation to the improvement of security, but also to commit to initiating a series of important structural reforms related to training, investment, product, communication abroad, events and links between tourism and health, tourism and sport, tourism and events.

There are a lot of actions where we have the will and we are determined primarily with support from the Tourism Ministry to go ahead and achieve performance.

Have you developed such a strategy to deal with this crisis especially as several professional sectors plan the closure of several hotels from next September?

We are trying to manage the crisis at the ministry in charge, but also at the ONTT. Tourism professionals know what to do and what to avoid.

The government, for its part, has set up a battery of exceptional measures after the Sousse attack to help the sector.

Professionals have faced this crisis in the best conditions. Today we are preparing for the gradual return of the flows. This would also depend on communication campaigns with tour operators. Moreover, daily contacts are made at the highest level to reassure them and to ensure the recovery as quickly as possible.

We have planned a number of participation in international and regional events. As such, Minister Salma Elloumi will lead a large delegation to the summit of the World Tourism Organization to be held shortly.

We are organizing trips for professionals, journalists and commercial agents to Tunisia to convey reassuring messages. We are mobilizing all our energy to achieve the gradual resumption of tourist flows.

On another level, we are preparing structural reforms. Moreover, the Ministry is giving special impetus to all the reforms in a serene environment.

Many elements need to be revised in this regard, namely the organization, sector governance, enhancement of the product, product diversification…

Is it possible to achieve this goal?

I think we will have to do benchmarking of countries that have achieved successes. It will be understood that structural change movements are movements that take place over time.

That is why a structural reform requires a period of 5 to 10 years. Indeed, it is important to prepare people for it to be widely shared. It should not be a reform against the professionals.

Today we have a great reform to engage in improving the quality of the tourism product. This requires updating standards and norms while introducing safety standards.

This also requires the diversification of tourism by encouraging small and medium tourism businesses such as guesthouses and campsites for youth.

This is important given that Tunisia has an extremely rich potential and each Tunisian territory can be a tourist region through the engagement of the population and a number of accommodation reflexes.

It is important to make an extra effort to change the image of insecurity and terrorism.

How do you see the future of the sector?

I am naturally optimistic. I think when we have a responsibility to manage a sector considered important and diversified with a chain of rich values, one has no right to retreat. Rather, we have the duty of the success in achieving the reforms, creating a positive momentum and bounce on problems so that Tunisia would overcome this painful ordeal.

You insist each time on the recovery, while many professionals have warned against the uncertainty of the next period. Are you sure that the recovery is certain?

The recovery, in my opinion, is certain. After last June 26 carnage in Sousse, contacts have been established for example with tour operators in two countries: Poland and Russia, and we found that things tend to change positively.

This means that recovery needs trust. This recovery requires us to have confidence in ourselves and that we have confidence in the Tunisia destination. It’s very important to keep in mind that Tunisia is a must destination and its geographical proximity is a major competitive advantage.

There are not many countries that have a capacity between 200 and 240,000 hotel beds.

Morocco is currently developing its tourism and we are not necessarily in competition. There are complementarities.

I think that we are and will continue to be a destination of choice for family vacation, but also a destination for sporting and cultural events and golf tourism etc.

Tunisia is a close country naturally welcoming. This is why it is enough to improve our communication policy and to secure our country while managing better our security management for things to pick up.

For some sides, these are only mere words and nothing is done. These are only words. What do you think?

This does not only concern the tourism department. This is a valid observation for other sectors such as health, education, trade and culture.

People tend to forget that Tunisia is a developing country and the characteristic of this kind of countries is that is working, knowing that development, restructuring and improvement projects are ongoing. That’s the meaning of life in a country.

A country that stops modernizing and restructuring itself is a dead country. So we are a living country and it’s good that there are always construction sites.

For 5 years, this is the first time that Tunisia has the opportunity to initiate reform actions in a politically stable environment. If this double shock we has had recently had not occurred, we would not have advanced on a number of reform and restructuring tracks.

Today, this government has for the first time put planning back on track. Besides, the Prime Minister has decided to provide Tunisia for the next five years with a guidance note, defined priorities and major projects that have been identified. He has already asked all the ministries to indicate their priorities. That is why we will develop our restructuring priorities of this sector.

The conditions, in my opinion, are met paired with a strong political will to improve the current situation without forgetting the great pressure for us to go to another stage of professionalism and reinvent our tourism through a well determined vision.


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