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Tunisia uprising a chance to expand tourism

travel Updated: Apr 19, 2012 17:03 IST
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The revolution that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali spells an opportunity for Tunisia to remake and grow its tourism industry, the head of the World Tourism Organisation said Tuesday.

"The political change in Tunisia creates a very significant opportunity to ... offer some key areas for tourism such as the diversification of products and activities, the continuous search for quality," said Frederic Pierret, UNWTO director general.

Tunisia saw its tourism receipts plunge by a third in 2011 amid the January uprising that overthrew Ben Ali and ensuing unrest in the country.

Tourism is a key sector for the north African state, making up seven percent of its output and directly employing 400,000 people.

Concerns were also growing on the impact that the country's new Islamist-led government could have on the industry.

But the head of the UN agency on tourism shrugged off those fears.

"I think that as long as the basic principles on welcoming tourists continue to be respected, there is no reason for tourists' behaviour to change in the mid and long term, including with regards to Tunisia," said Pierret.

"Whatever the difficulties and fears, the country has major assets that it can exploit and it is not political change that can call it into question," he told AFP on the sidelines of a conference on Mediterranean tourism at Tunisia's Djerba island.

Tunisia is counting on tours such as a Jewish pilgrimage in May to help allay concerns over its Islamist government.

Five hundred Jews are expected to visit the Ghriba synagogue, Africa's oldest, in the pilgrimage, which is being revived this year after having been scaled down last year over security fears.

Organiser of the annual tour, Rene Trabelsi, said it is hoped that a successful pilgrimage "will show the world that Tunisians accept difference and that the new Tunisia is not as Islamist and radical as some think".

"It's a country that respects religious minorities as always," he added.

The pilgrimage is linked to the Jewish holiday of Lag Baomer and generally attracts thousands of Jews from Europe, Israel and the United States.

The Jewish community in Muslim Tunisia has seen its numbers dwindle from 100,000 in 1956, when the country won independence from France, to around 1,000 currently.