Tunisia’s government is hoping that Chinese travelers will be the vehicle of the recovery of the country’s struggling tourism industry. This sentiment is something that Chinese state media have latched onto; Xinhua, for example, recently published a piece optimistically titled “Chinese market to be main factor to revive Tunisian tourism.” The North African country certainly has a lot to offer tourists from any source market with its Mediterranean coastline and wealth of historical and cultural sites. Encouragingly, Chinese tourist arrivals are up about 57 percent for the first five months of 2018, reaching 12,000. Unfortunately for Tunisia, it’s unlikely that Chinese travelers can ever be the mainstay of its tourism industry.
Both officials in Tunisia and China have been extolling the benefits of Chinese tourism to the North African country, but the prospects are limited
Tunisia had been a favorite beach getaway for European tourists for years. The country attracted approximately 7.2 million arrivals in 2014. This figured plummeted to about 5.4 million in the wake of a terrorist attack that left 38 people dead, all of them European tourists, and an additional 39 wounded. European markets were, and continue to be, by far the most important for Tunisia. Unsurprisingly, it was arrivals from Europe that suffered the most in the tragedy of 2015 and caused substantial damage to the North African nation’s tourism industry and its ailing economy.
The attack and the subsequent plunge in overseas visitors served as a sobering reminder that if Tunisia wanted to promote the stability of its tourism industry, it needed to diversify it’s source markets. In many ways, China appeared to be an ideal market to fill the vacuum with its size and growth potential. To tap into this market, Tunisian authorities made some significant steps, most notable of these efforts was granting Chinese citizens visa-exempt arrival in Tunisia. Charter flights from China to the North African nation also began this year.
Fundamentally, Tunisia finds itself competing with better known and easier to access destinations in Southern Europe
The fundamental issue, however, is that no matter how inviting Tunisia makes itself for Chinese tourists, it has to contend with both competition with major European destinations and geography. The country finds itself in the unenviable position of being a long-haul destination in the relative proximity of Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and France. Unfortunately, unlike its competitors, Tunisia has very little brand recognition, and less-developed air travel infrastructure.
Tunisia will likely be most successful in the China market as one destination of many in a tour. This, of course, brings with it challenges of its own. While Tunisia finds itself competing with juggernauts like Greece and Italy, it’s still somewhat choreographically separated. Including it on a tour of more prominent European destinations is substantially more logistically challenging than simply adding another European getaway. Fortunately, the ability for Chinese tourists to enter visa-free makes this option appreciably easier and the popularity of North African tours for Chinese tourists seems to be on the rise.
All of this is to say that Tunisia can and should pursue Chinese tourism and will likely see some benefit. Nonetheless, expecting China will become a key pillar of the country’s tourism industry will lead to disappointment.
The good news for Tunisia is that 2017 was a pretty good year for travel. Arrivals were up 23 percent over 2016, reaching about 7 million in total. Most of this growth was from European markets, in which the country is far better suited to tap into than China. Adding a healthy amount of Chinese tourist revenue to the mix could allow the country a larger degree of diversity to better ride out instability in the global tourism market.