There was a lot less competition for prime sun lounger spots in Hammamet this summer. In the unstable wake of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, visitor numbers have been reported as at least half of the usual seven million.
While President Ben Ali’s mid-January demise took much of the world, and even regular Tunisian visitors, by surprise, the subtle changes in the country’s tourism industry have not been hard to spot over the last few years. Independent hotels have provided little competition to the 600-bed beachside resorts but instead they attract a different type of traveller, one who is as interested in the country’s captivating history and cultural scene as its beaches and blue skies. Likewise, this new breed of hotelier is passionate about Tunisian identity and crafting an authentic sense of place.
In the heart of the Tunis medina, La Chambre Bleue remained open for business during all but the most tumultuous days of last January and February, despite being just a few minutes stroll from the sit-ins and tear gas of Place de le Kasbah. Foreign press and NGOs may have made up the majority of their guests, but summer has since delivered travellers who were keen to see how the new Tunisia was faring.
La Chambre Bleue is at once profoundly traditional and bravely contemporary, a taste of both Tunisia’s past and its possibilities. As owner Marouane Ben Miled said, “Our revolution gave us back our country, so now it’s easier for us to share it with our guests”. He is unequivocal about the importance of sustainable and culturally relevant hotels, and is positive about the way small hotels and B&Bs are organising themselves. A new website, 1001 Tunisie, documents both the hotels and the work of a symbiotic band of designers, artisans, gallery owners, retailers and restaurateurs.
Amel and Patrick Marguier’s Dar Fatma, in Sidi Bou Said, was one of the first properties to be recognised by the Tunisian National Tourism Office as an ‘alternative’ tourism business. Set in an impossibly poetic position overlooking the Bay of Tunis, it is quietly upmarket, but decidedly local, with an interior that honours the traditional village house’s intricate, intimate layout, gently pushing its straightforward vernacular into a textured modernism. Breakfasts feature home-made citronnade and fresh bombalouni doughnuts, and dinner recommendations include four-dinar couscous places alongside the country’s best fine dining.
Amel Marguier is keenly awaiting the post-election calm, but also notes that Dar Fatma has been less affected by the instability than the larger hotels. At the same time, she notes there has been a promising number of restaurant openings in Tunis’ northern suburbs, as well as a significant number of exhibitions and concerts that would not have been possible under Ben Ali.
Laurence Shukor, of Dar HI, in Nefta in the country’s far Saharan south, joked, “We realized Dar HI was part of a trend when the governor of Nefta, the Tunisian National Tourism Office, and the minister of tourism started calling us to tell us our little eco-lodge was important to the new Tunisia”. The remote, deceptively ambitious project is a collaboration between French designer Matali Crasset and established hoteliers Patrick Elouarghi and Philippe Chapelet, who stress the operation’s underlying ethos: “it was obvious that we had to open an establishment that would be ecological, and also completely accepted by the inhabitants of Nefta, both architecturally and socially”.
Locals work in the kitchen and use produce sourced from Dar HI’s organic garden or local markets; rooms push architectural boundaries but also reflect traditional desert structures and the desert itself; a luxurious hammam is fed solely by an underground thermal spring; and there are interesting artisan projects in the works, including one with Deyma, a well-known date retailer.
“Luckily we already attract visitors that want a different type of hotel experience, and not just a stay in the block-cement hotels along the coast”, Shukor said. “We are convinced that the Jasmine Revolution will be the start of a very interesting new Tunisia that is economically viable, with a lot of engineers, lawyers, writers, designers, photographers and intellectuals that will finally be able to express themselves freely.”
The outcome of October’s election remains a cause for anxiety, and, yes, everyone would love a few more million visitors to return next summer. But in the meantime the spirit of new beginnings is a hard one to temper.