Daily Israel Report

Tourism Trumps Islam in Tunisia

Tunis' Islamist government has decided its country's beaches and bars will remain open in an effort to revitalize the nation's economy.
By Gabe Kahn
First Publish: 4/16/2012, 9:24 PM

Hamadi Jbeli
Hamadi Jbeli
Reuters

Tunisia's Islamist-run government says the Mediterranean country's beaches and coastal bars will remain open for business as tourist dollars prove their primacy.

“We will respect the traditions of our visitors in their food, and clothing and lifestyle,” Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said at a conference to promote tourism held on the island of Djerba.

A wide selection of alcoholic beverages - prohibited to Muslims by Islamic Law - was on offer at the opening ceremony of the tourism conference where Jebali spoke.

Jebali’s Islamist Ennahda party took power at the head of a coalition in an election after last year’s revolution, which ousted long-time leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and sparked the Arab Spring.

Tunisia relies on tourism for almost 7 percent of its gross domestic product. The nation, whose revolution was fueled by economic woes, has seen tourism revenues drop by more than a third.

“Unfortunately, some want to paint Tunisia as a jungle and sow fear of the Ennahda government but this does not reflect reality and the proof is that these critics speak freely,” Jebali told journalists.

About 5 million tourists visited the country last year, down from 7 million in 2010 as fears over security caused tourists to flee or to cancel bookings.

Tunisia has since made a transition to democracy and is seeking to coax tourists back to its coastal resorts.

Jebali said bookings had improved for 2012 and Tunisia hoped to regain its 7 million tourists and top that by encouraging visits to historical, cultural sites and the southern desert.

In an effort to allay fears that Tunisia would impose sharia, or Islamic law, as some conservative Islamists have demanded, Jebali promised that the new constitution being drafted will protect the “civil” nature of the state.

“We want to reassure everyone and even our own people that there is nothing to fear from freedom and democracy,” he said.