3:45pm

Fri April 8, 2011
Africa

Post-Revolution Tunisia Faces Economic Woes

Originally published on Fri April 8, 2011 9:59 pm

In Tunisia, a transitional government is in the midst of tackling predictable challenges like how to agree on a constitution and how to organize an election.

But there's another problem the government faces: the state of the economy.

In the warrens of the medina — the old city of Tunis — merchants in their covered stalls, packed with every sort of merchandise, know that tourists may avoid a country that's working its way through a largely peaceful revolution, with an occasional protest that turns violent. And they're not happy about it.

Said Ayari sells handicrafts like traditional pointed leather shoes. He says there used to be many tourists at the market, but not anymore.

"The tourism is catastrophic in Tunis today," he says.

The tourism sector is in a "deep crisis," says Mahmoud Ben Romdhane, an economist and a senior member of one of the bigger Tunisian political parties — The Ettajdid, or Renewal Movement.

"This sector is a very important for us," he says. "It's thanks to this sector that I would say 400,000 to 500,000 people live."

'Big Damage'

In this country of 10.5 million, tourism represents more than 5 percent of the economy.

One of the main tourists draws is the ruins of ancient Carthage in Tunis. On one particular day, tour guide Tarak el Ghozzi leads 10 American tourists through a breathtakingly beautiful spot along the Bay of Tunis. An idyllic green hillside dotted with palm trees slopes toward the remains of the second century Antonine Baths. Beyond the ruins, the perfectly bright blue Mediterranean blends into a paler blue sky at the horizon.

But this tourist heaven is empty, except for a few Americans. People are evidently afraid of instability and the war next door in Libya. But Mary Bohls, an 84-year-old retired CPA from Austin, Texas, says she wanted to come — even though family and friends made fun of her.

In a typical season, el Ghozzi says, the place would be bustling with people.

"This time of the year, there would be all of the cruise ships, there'd be thousands of people here, there'd be hundreds of buses," he says. "And I would have only three minutes here to talk to the people and have to move aside for other groups to take the place. I mean, it's a big damage. It was hit terribly. Over 2 million Tunisians living from tourism. ... They don't have an income, they have to rely on their families' support."

At a posh restaurant in the Casbah, the old downtown near the prime minister's office, business is down more than half compared with last year. And that's just the beginning of the impact of the regional revolutionary wave on Tunisia's economy.

At Tahrir Cafe in the working class neighborhood of Ariana, a Tunis suburb, a couple dozen men play cards on the battered metal tabletops. The midday news from Al Jazeera is on the TV on the wall over two men playing chkobba, which resembles the card game War. On the television, amid scenes of protest from Egypt, Yemen and Iraq, there are reports on the conflict in neighboring Libya. Its effects in Tunisia are palpable.

Spillover From Libya

Ben Romdhane says that if Tunisia has lost 5 percentage points in economic growth this year, 3 to 4 points of that loss are due to Libya.

"First, we had every year 1.5 million Libyans coming here and visiting Tunisia," he says. "And they have high income. Two, we have tens of thousands of Tunisians working there, sending money to the families, transferring income. They have now come back to Tunisia and we have to give them money. Three, we had trade with Libya, which was a source of income for thousands of families living close to Libya. This trade is disappearing. I was going to tell you this was independent of the Tunisian revolution, but it is not true," he says with a laugh. "Because we inspired them."

Ideally, the Libyan conflict will end someday, Tunisia's political elites will hammer out their constitutional compromises, and the tourists and the Libya trade will return. That still would leave Tunisia with some huge economic problems — the kind that led a desperate fruit vendor to set himself on fire and ignite the revolution that inspired the region.

End Corruption, Grow The Economy

There's high unemployment and under-employment among young people in Tunisia. And the country's interior is far less developed than the coast.

Some wonder whether a democratic government could do any better at creating jobs for a population that is very young and increasingly well-educated.

Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, the founder of the Progressive Democratic Party, says he has a program to address these issues. The man who could be the country's next president says that ending the rampant corruption of the former regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali will spur economic growth.

"With democracy and good governance, first we will have more growth because nepotism, the abuse of power and so on hampered the growth," he says.

Chebbi is a lean, balding lawyer whose elegance at age 67 belies his youth as a student protester. For that, he spent two years in jail in the late 1960s.

Down the road, he says, he sees an upside to the very regional upheaval that is currently hurting Tunisia's economy.

"With the new conditions in Tunisia and in the whole region, if the revolution succeeds in Egypt and Libya, we will have huge market that will help for investment in that region," he says. "And that will be a factor of growth. We are optimistic about our ability to succeed in growth more than before."

That's long-term vision. For the considerable tourist sector, there would be a short-term solution — if only the Europeans and the Americans would come back.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Our colleague Robert Siegel is in Tunisia this week reporting on that country's transition to democracy. In January, several weeks of protest forced the longtime dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee.

There's now a transitional government in Tunis. And it faces the predictable challenges: how to agree on a constitution, how to organize an election. And, as Robert reports today, there's another complication: the state of Tunisia's economy.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Here's a hypothetical question: Where would you rather spend a vacation: in a country that's working its way through a largely peaceful revolution with an occasional protest that turns violent, or in a safe police state?

Well, in the warrens of the Medina, the Old City of Tunis, the merchants in their covered stalls packed with every sort of merchandise know the answer, and they're not happy about it.

Said Ayare(ph) sells handicrafts, traditional pointed leather shoes for example. His market is the tourist trade.

SAID AYARE: Before, many tourists come and walk the Medina. Here you buy many article by handcrafts, do you understand? But today, no have the tourists.

SIEGEL: So the people who live by making handicrafts that the tourtists come to buy aren't making any money now.

AYARE: All today in Tunis, the tourism is catastrophic in Tunis today.

SIEGEL: Mahmoud Ben Romdhane is an economist and a senior member of one of the bigger Tunisian political parties, the Ettajdid, or Renewal Movement.

MAHMOUD BEN ROMDHANE: Our touristical system is in deep crisis. It's thanks to this sector that I would 400,000 to 500,000 people live.

SIEGEL: In this country of 10 and a half million, tourism represents over five percent of the economy. Here's one measure of how bad it is: Tunis is home to the ruins of ancient Carthage.

TARAK EL GHOZZI: (Tour Guide) Well, we're here in front of the main public bath in Carthage, the main bath built, or the biggest bath built outside of Rome.

SIEGEL: Tour guide Tarak el Ghozzi leads 10 American tourists through a breathtakingly beautiful spot along the Bay of Tunis. An idyllic green hillside dotted with palm trees slopes toward the remains of the second century Antonine Baths.

Beyond the ruin, the perfectly bright blue Mediterranean blends into a paler blue sky at the horizon. In short, we are in tourist heaven, and it is empty, except for these few Americans, like 84-year-old Mary Bohls, a retired CPA from Austin, Texas. People are evidently afraid of instability and the war next door in Libya. Was she?

MARY BOHLS: No, We all wanted to come. We were made fun of, of it, for coming, but...

SIEGEL: Who made fun of you?

BOHLS: Friends, family. What are you doing going to Tunisia? So here we are.

SIEGEL: Mr. El Ghozzi, the guide, told me what the scene is like here in a typical season.

EL GHOZZI: This time of the year, there would be all the cruise ships. There would be thousands of people here. There would be hundreds of buses. And I would have only three minutes here to talk to the people and have to move aside for other groups to take their place. I mean, it's big damage.

SIEGEL: Really, the tourist trade has been hit terribly here.

EL GHOZZI: It was hit. It was definitely hit terribly, and of the two millions Tunisians living from tourism who now are on (unintelligible) out of jobs, they don't have an income. They have to rely on their families' support.

SIEGEL: This is what you hear from business owners who depend on the tourist trade here: Business is down.

At a posh restaurant in the Casbah, the old downtown near the Prime Minister's office, business is down more than half compared to last year. And that is just the beginning of the economic impact of the regional revolutionary wave on Tunisia's economy.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language).

SIEGEL: This is the Tahrir Cafe in a working class neighborhood of Ariana, a Tunis suburb. At midday, a couple of dozen men play cards on the battered metal tabletops. The news from al-Jazeera is on the TV hanging on the wall over a two-man game of chkobba, which is something like the card game War.

On the television, among scenes of protest from Egypt, Yemen and Iraq, there are reports on the real war in neighboring Libya. Its effects in Tunisia are palpable.

Economist Mahmoud Ben Romdhane says that if Tunisia has lost five percentage points in economic growth this year, three to four points of that loss is due to Libya for three reasons.

BEN ROMDHANE: First, we had every year 1.5 million Libyans coming here and visiting Tunisia. Two, we have tens of thousands of Tunisians working there. They have now come back to Tunisia, and we have to give them money. Three, we had trade with Libya. This trade is disappearing.

This is, I would say - I was going to tell you is independent from the Tunisian Revolution, but it is not true because...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: You inspired the Libyans to do this.

BEN ROMDHANE: Because you are right. We inspired them.

SIEGEL: Ideally, the Libyan war will end someday, Tunisia's political elites will hammer out their constitutional compromises, and the tourists and the Libya trade will return. But that will still leave Tunisia with some huge economic problems, the kind that led a desperate fruit vendor to set himself on fire and ignite the revolution that inspired the region.

There is high unemployment and underemployment among young people. Can a democratic government do any better at creating jobs for a population that is very young and increasingly well-educated? The interior is far less developed than the coast.

Nejib Chebbi says he has a program. Chebbi is the founder of the PDP, the Progressive Democratic Party. He could be Tunisia's next president. In July, the country is electing a constitutional assembly first. He says that ending the rampant corruption of the Ben Ali regime will spur economic growth.

NEJIB CHEBBI: With democracy and good governance, first we will have more growth because nepotism and the abuse of power and so on hampered the growth. We estimate that at least two points the lack of growth with despotism.

SIEGEL: Mr. Chebbi is a lean, balding lawyer whose elegance at age 67 belies his youth as a student protestor. For that, he spent two years in jail in the late 1960s. Down the road, he sees an upside to the very regional upheaval that is currently hurting Tunisia's economy.

CHEBBI: With the new conditions in Tunisia and in the whole region, if the revolutions succeed in Libya and in Egypt, we will have huge market who will help foreign investment in that region, and that will be a factor of growth. We are optimistic about our ability to succeed in growth more than before.

SIEGEL: That is a long-term vision. For the considerable tourist sector in this country, there would be a short-term solution, too, if only the Europeans, and the Americans would come back.

In Tunis, this is Robert Siegel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.