The Tunisian seaside resort of Yasmine Hammamet with its fine beach, warm blue sea and welcoming hotels is like a picture postcard in early summer – but with nobody in it.
Europeans, Algerians and Libyans have all deserted the town in the northwest of Tunisia, which is undergoing the worst tourist season in history, like most of the other seaside towns in the North African country since the January revolution that ousted the despot Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
“It’s worse than catastrophic,” said Kamel Ben Abdallah, the manager of a three-star hotel, who normally makes 65 percent of his income during the summer. In spite of a 40 percent cut in prices, many rooms are empty.
Ben Abdallah has been forced to slash his staff down to 40, compared with 100 during the same period last year and he hired no seasonal workers.
The hotel manager blames the media for this “enormous waste,” accusing journalists of painting a picture of a “deeply unstable Tunisia” since the popular uprising in January.
“The media only over-dramatize things,” he protested.
The National Office of Tourism Tuesday announced that 3,000 jobs have been lost this year in the tourist sector, which accounts for 7 percent of Tunisia’s gross domestic product and usually employs 400,000 people.
The number of tourists arriving has fallen by 39 percent and income has dropped by 51 percent.
Yasmine Hammamet is as welcoming as ever but it does not even attract cut-rate tourists this year.
Though renowned for its festive atmosphere, the resort is plunged into a deathly silence. Traders, craftsmen and guides have nothing to do.
“My camel has put on weight because it hasn’t moved,” complained Hichem, looking desperately for a client to take for a ride near the marina.
On the beach where the deckchairs are empty, 23-year-old Saber was sitting on one of his 10 bicycles decorated with flags of many nationalities.
“I go whole days without renting a ride, even at the extremely cut rate of five dinars (2.50 euros, $3.60) for half an hour. The few tourists who are here shun us and stay shut away in their hotels,” he said.
“They don’t come out at night for fear of being attacked. There are a lot of baseless rumors going around,” explained Leila, a trader who plans to shut up shop in August.
“I was advised not to go out at night unaccompanied,” confirmed Florence, a French tourist who preferred not to leave the hotel “for security reasons.”
Last week, the Interior Ministry announced that it was reinforcing the security presence in tourist regions but this measure does not seem to reassure many visitors to post-Ben Ali Tunisia.
According to Philippe Belhay, the Anglo-Tunisian manager of a five-star hotel who has lost 52 percent of his business, neighboring “anti-revolutionary countries want to kill off the young Tunisian revolution by putting out rumors on the dangers of instability.”
One totally false rumor about the kidnapping of an Algerian tourist in Sousse circulated in the Tunisian press for about 10 days. Many hotel keepers believe that it was put out to discourage Algerian tourists, who usually make up a substantial part of their clientele.