News Analysis: Tunisia attracts big hotel operators

Tunisia’s tourism industry experienced several difficult years following a 2015 terror attack in which a gunman killed 38 people in Sousse — which followed a previous attack in March 2015 on a museum. STR reported it led to “significant” declines in RevPAR, which worsened after the Sousse attack that June, resulting in a 51.7% RevPAR drop for Q3 2015.

With a number of new openings on the horizon and tourism metrics on the rise, Tunisia offers a blend of modernity and tradition in North Africa.

However, in the three years since, Tunisia has seen a turnaround and major hotel brands have announced their entry into the North African country. Mövenpick Hotel du Lac Tunis will open its doors soon, joining the Four Seasons Hotel Tunis, which opened at the end of 2017. Anantara is also due to open in mid-2018.

Sources, however, have told Hotelier Middle East that the hotel located near the desert oasis of Tozeur has been delayed by a few months. Dillip Rajakarier, the chief executive of parent company Minor Hotels, said in a recent release that “capitalising on Tunisia’s renaissance as a hot travel destination, Anantara
Tozeur Resort will open in mid-2018, offering a rich gateway to the southwest area of Tozeur”.

And there are more properties coming: the Six Senses Gammarth is due to open soon, Avani Les Berges Du Lac Tunis Suites is scheduled to open in the coming months in the central business and diplomatic area of Tunis, and the Avani Gammarth Tunis Resort & Spa is expected to open in 2021 and will offer 250 keys. The Tunisian economy has also gotten off to a good start in the New Year, with tourism figures having increased in January 2018 compared to the same time last year, according to government sources.

Tourism revenue rose 15.7%, from 131.1 million dinars (US$55.15m) at the end of January 2017 to 151.7 million dinars ($63.81m) at the end of January 2018 and HotStats in the Middle East & Africa recorded a 2.3% increase in room occupancy in November 2017 to 71.6%.

According to HotStats, this is the second-highest occupancy recorded in the region for the year. “November is typically a strong month of performance for hotels in the Middle East & Africa and this month was almost entirely fuelled by North Africa and particularly ‘winter sun’ resorts, including Tunisia and Egypt,” Pablo Alonso, CEO of HotStats, said in a recent release.

The tourism sector also posted growth of 23.2% in 2017 by receiving more than seven million tourists of all nationalities, said the communication office of the Tunisian Ministry of Tourism. According to the ministry, among these tourists were about 1.69 million Europeans — showing an increase of nearly 20% — the majority of whom are British.

Part of the reason for this increase is the lifting of British travel restrictions during the latter half of 2017 and, after three years of suspension, British tour operator Thomas Cook resumed services to Tunisia in February. The first flight landed at the NefidhaHammamet airport from Birmingham, with around 220 British tourists.

Starting this May, Thomas Cook’s frequency of flights is expected to reach 10 flights per week. According to Nicolas Pezout, general manager of the Mövenpick Hotel du Lac Tunis, Tunisia’s tourism and hospitality industry has been through a challenging few years, and many efforts have been deployed by all to bring the destination’s image closer to what it used to be.

“But as Tunisia returns to the radars of most of its traditional feeder markets such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom, these past years have also had an effect on its exposure in alternative markets,” Pezout added.

According to the hotelier, the reduction of activity from its traditional sources has compelled Tunisia to explore and further develop other visitor streams from markets with massive potential, such as China, India and Russia. Tourism professionals are also optimistic about redeveloping tourism streams from the GCC countries.

He added that Tunisia is probably one of the last places  in the world today where visitors can “enjoy a blend of modernity and tradition, as well as a diverse array of natural landscapes ranging from mountain forests to the unique desert dunes, which were used as the setting for [movies like] Star Wars and The English Patient”.

“As a foreigner, having lived in a variety of countries throughout Europe and the Middle East, I really can say that the people here are amongst the friendliest, most welcoming I have seen,” Pezout added. Mövenpick is among the new hotel openings set for this year, with more and more international brands displaying interest in the destination and gearing up to open over the coming years.

However Pezout is positive that this new boom will see quality and service levels at hotels rise.

“This also means that we need now, more than ever, to stand out from the competition,” Pezout added.

Despite all these new upcoming hotels, general managers are not worried about staffing their hotels.

According to Philippe Cornaille, general manager of Avani Les Berges Du Lac Tunis Suites: “Tunisian people are very hospitable, kind and authentic. Our team will be local. We will also work to ensure we maintain the balance of staffing at the hotel, as well as develop training programmes to ensure the full Avani brand experience is being delivered to our guests.”

Pezout, in agreement with him, added that Tunisia has invested strongly on education for the last 60 years and now these efforts are bearing fruit. “We have no problem in finding and hiring the team members we require to open our hotel. While few expatriates have been hired for some positions, 99% of our team members are proud Tunisians.”

In fact, Pezout is optimistic about Tunisia’s future. “The Tunisian government is making tremendous efforts to consolidate the destination’s image, which has been somewhat challenged over the past few years. The infrastructure is good, and quality issues are being addressed more seriously than ever before, with the tourism authority taking a firmer stance against operators who would not comply with the standards in place. From a hospitality industry perspective, Tunis is welcoming three new international brand openings this year, with two more at least for 2019,” he said.

Pezout continued: “This year will also see an international brand resort open in Tozeur, Tunisia’s oasis gateway to the Sahara. As for MövenpickHotels & Resorts, we have consolidated our position in Tunisia in a display of trust and confidence in the destination’s potential by opening a third property, but this doesn’t mean that we are not on the lookout for other opportunities. With a destination as attractive as Tunisia, tourists will definitely be back.”

 TunisianMontorOnline (Hotelier Middle East)

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