The 2009 tourist season is almost over. So far it was “fair”, said the tourism minister in an exclusive interview to Africanmanager. Khalil Lajimi reviewed the results of the season and outlined prospects in light of the measures to be taken to ensure a sustainable recovery of the Tunisian tourism industry. Interview:.
How do you assess, up to late September, the tourist high season and the prospects for autumn?
The 2009 tourist season was, say, fair, due to the international situation, including the situation in the North Shore of the Mediterranean whose countries are the main markets of tourists to Tunisia. As of September 30, overall entries were less than 2% over the first nine months of the current year. What happens is that we have fewer tourists from Europe, almost -9%. This figure is offset by an increased entry of Maghrebis (Libyans and Algerians). On the European level, there are markets that are performing better than others. The French market is holding water; it is a market where we only have lost 3%. There is a market that gives us satisfaction this year, namely the British market, which recorded a growth of 5%. The big markets which are down are those of Eastern Europe, namely Poland, the Czech Republic and Russia. This was expected given the sharp devaluation of national currencies of these countries compared to the Euro, which has been raising the price of consumers’ holiday packages of these three countries. The loss in terms of entries ranges between 20 and 25%.
Two other markets are not performing well in Western Europe, the Spanish market where the crisis broke out earlier than in other countries, and given the specificity of the Spanish economy which relies on real estate, we know that the real estate crisis (subprime) represented the start of the international crisis.
The other market that we are worried about is the Italian one, but it is not specific to Tunisia. We have lost 15% in this market this year. The Italians remained in Italy, and the total outgoing in this country has suffered this year.
You are still using words such as “fair,” hold water». Does that reflect dissatisfaction with the season?
No, we cannot be satisfied with a similar result, although revenues are still growing, up to more than 3.6% in dinars, and 1% in Euros. The comparison is made in relation to a record year, namely that of 2008, a year that, even in Euros, we broke the 2001 record in terms of revenues in Euros. We are proceeding with our growth.
Meanwhile, I am not satisfied with the level of overnight stays and that of entries. When I depict the season as «fair” or “more or less satisfactory”, that is in relation with other destinations in the Mediterranean basin and in light of the sluggish international economy, which especially affects tourist market. That’s why I say a fair season, since we are not in a normal situation. These are figures that I would describe as bad, if economic conditions were normal, and these are figures that, given the international economic environment, allow us to characterize the season as a proper season and a season that holds the road. We must not forget that 2008 is a base year for the Tunisian tourism.
You mentioned just now a less than 1% in the total number of entries and the offset of Europeans by North Africans. We all know that North Africans are not benefiting as they should or do no benefit at all.
You know, our friends hoteliers are never satisfied. They are right when there is an occupancy rate over the year of around 53%. The hotelier will surely be satisfied when we have an occupancy rate over the year that would reach 65%. When this rate is reached, hoteliers speak of satisfaction, and this is quite normal. You know that the seasonal effect that we have in Tunisia is one of the harms we suffer. Any strategy that has been put in place aims at diversifying the season, how to work on the Sahara tourism, how to work on the spa and the Gulf, and all this is to avoid the effect of seasonality and increase the growth rate of our hotels ? The infrastructure is there, and savings has been mobilized to create wealth, and it is therefore necessary that this infrastructure has a return on investment, if I may say so.
Our friends hoteliers are right not to be satisfied when we see their occupancy rates over the year post 53%. We should go up to 65% in order to begin to talk of satisfaction.
During your first press conference, it was about the same markets that were declining , or markets that you were dealing with. Now, it is still the case. What actions were carried out by the ministry to make these markets restart?
I do not agree. First, the only markets that declined were the Spanish and the Czech markets, We can talk about these two markets, and there you are right. The UK market dropped to -18% last year, this year we are at 5%. Watch this contradiction that we have on this market . The reason is very simple. We have our own analysis.
The proportion of total entrants is not as big as that either, it is not a market that looms large in the Tunisian tourism …
No, we must be careful. The UK market accounts for 250 000 entries with high purchasing potential. This is one of the most lucrative markets. In addition, it is a market that works in winter, which allows us to have a high occupancy rate in winter. Each market has its own feature. Secondly, as for the German market, and after four years of decline, we managed to recover last year and it stands at 4%. The Italian market straightened up in 2008, after two or three years of decline, and this year, due to the situation in Germany and Italy, their markets are falling too. The only two markets that have continued to decline, even in good times, are the Spanish and the Czech ones. All other markets, in normal circumstances, have experienced growth patterns, and more, we got to straighten up the German market and the Italian one, after three or four years of decline.
This year, it is expected that these markets are in crisis like all the others. The French market, which is our main market, drops by 3%, whereas, last year, we recorded an increase of over 8% on the same market. Look at the economic effect which is quite normal and natural.
Regarding the Spanish market, we are working, and even during normal conditions, it may experience a decline and we are working on it, and similarly for the Czech market as well. Here, there is a substantive work conducted by ONTT in order to take the necessary measures to try to straighten up those markets.
In short, what are the remedies?
For the Czech market, a first conclusion: it is an air problem. We have experienced difficulties as far as the air aspect is concerned , which has caused much harm. Besides the fact that our competitors have largely sold off prices, it was always said that Tunisia undercuts prices; this year we discovered that they did better than us … I cannot disclose names. On the Czech market, it is quite normal due to competition. This year, the overnight stay revenue is satisfactory; it rose from 13.8% in dinars, and 10.4% in Euros. It is about 98.8 dinars and 52.9 Euros per night. And that means that the policy we are putting in place, namely the quality and up market, is now bearing fruit.
We’re on the right path and should continue. It’s a long process and it is a work of pedagogy that we perform daily, and in this regard, I hail our friends hoteliers who have been sensitized to this issue and are realizing that the road to success is quality, upgrade and service, and we are in the process to succeed thanks to the latest measures taken by the President of the Republic to extend the upgrade to a premium of 50% over the intangible.
What about the upgrading programme in the hotel sector?
The program is normally on track, the latest measure taken by the President of the Republic to extend 50% premium to the intangible aspect will start very soon after the presidential elections through a new sensitization campaign targeting hoteliers, and I think we’ll be able to give an impulse to speed up the pace of the sector upgrading.
All premiums have already been received by the hoteliers?
We are at a disbursement rate of over 25% or 30%. We noted that hoteliers are waiting for the completion of the upgrading of hotels to submit their files for the release of premiums. This does not mean that we are at a high rate of achievement; the completion rate stands at 50%.
What is the percentage of hotels involved in the upgrading programme?
Almost half of the beds. 90,000 beds over 200,000 have joined the upgrading programme .
Did the crisis impact the development of the sector and thus prevent the building of new hotel units?
I don’t think so. In Tunisia, we suffer from overcapacity, especially in the off season. So when we refer to the pace of achievement of beds, we have reached a rate of 10 to 15 thousand beds a year. We fell in the early 2000s, to a rate of 8000 beds per year, and today, we are at a rate of between 2 and 3 miles per bed. The bulk of investment is now devoted to the modernization of the hotel industry, as part of their upgrade, which is good for tourism. This means that our capacity is not progressing too fast, but its quality is improving, and this will improve the overall economic performance of the sector.
What about the recurring issue of indebtedness of the hotel sector, did hoteliers start to pay, did you start applying sanctions?
The sanctions are the extreme solution that I personally do not wish to carry out. It’s not nice to sell a hotel unit, even if it fails. Because it is a unity that was built with public savings, like it or not, it’s true that there is equity, but there is also a public savings has been mobilized by the banking sector to finance the hotel unit with the aim to create jobs, create wealth, to get currency and to help develop the country. It is the economic and social development in the broadest sense.
A tripartite committee was set up, it is overseen by the Central Bank of Tunisia, and the Tunisian Federation of Hoteliers as well as ONTT is part of it. We moved forward. There were sometimes some small obstacles, but I think that over the last week, there was a meeting between the Federation and BCT to get ahead with this issue.