It was last January that the Jasmine Revolution ousted Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, eventually leading to free and democratic elections and the drafting of a new constitution.
A year later, Tunisia is in the midst of restructuring but is completely safe for travelers. Between the bar and the mosque, wearing shorts or the veil, both worlds seem to coexist in harmony, inspired by the new democracy that is being built.
The mild climate in winter is a good time to choose to become familiar with Tunisia, when the country becomes a haven away from the regular tourist traffic and visitors can experience its rich and varied cultural heritage at a lower cost than in the high season.
Beautiful and peaceful, the coastal capital of Tunis should be visited in winter to experience all it has to offer in relative quiet.
At the onset of winter, Tunis opens up like a flower. Tourists are also greeted in perfect French, the second most commonly spoken language in the country after Arabic. Being Francophone, for us this was really the icing on the cake!
Agriculture is the largest industry in the country, and the cuisine varies from one region to another. However, Tunisian resorts offer many other amenities aside from gourmet eating.
Tunisia has the largest collection of mosaics in the world after Italy, which illustrates the cultural wealth of the country. The Bardo National Museum in the western district of Tunis is dedicated entirely to the mosaics.
The mosaics have been carefully restored, forming several meters of frescoes dating back to the Carthaginian, Roman, and Arab invasions, moving through prehistory to the Muslim period. The museum remains open to the public despite renovations that will add two additional floors to accommodate its extensive collection.
Visiting the House of Crafts is a must in Tunis. Whether shopping for ceramics, rugs, baskets, bird cages, leather goods, engraved plates, or embroidered dresses, prices are amazingly low and profits go directly to the artisans. The state subsidizes a portion of the rental spaces to encourage crafts, the heart of tourism.
If you are looking for pottery, Nabeul, a town 67 kilometres southeast of Tunis on the south coast of the peninsula of Cape Bon, is the place to be.
Pottery company Kerkeni offers visitors a guided tour punctuated by demonstrations of pottery-making. Through the help of the National Association of Crafts, Karkeni also offers training to students from Japan, Saudi Arabia, and France. The impressive variety of pottery and terracotta objects, of which Tunisians are known masters, deserves to be discovered.
Driving toward the fortified tower of Sousse, located 140 kilometers from Tunis, we marveled at the breathtaking panoramic view of the city and its famous Medina, the oldest section of Tunis.
A visit to the Bourguiba Mausoleum in Monastir is an adventure in itself. The mausoleum’s sumptuousness, the chandelier overlooking the imposing tomb of the deceased, and the long passage to reach the main room (several graves were displaced to install this) are a sight to behold.
Built in 1963, the mausoleum is the burial place of Habib Bourguiba, the first President of the Republic of Tunisia, who introduced pro-Western reforms during his presidency.
A camel ride in the Sahara in winter as the sun gently covers the sand dunes is an unforgettable experience, as it combines the pleasure of the trip with silence and meditation inspired by the desert.
Douz, known as the Gateway to the Sahara, is a starting point for desert treks by camel, motorcycle, or four-wheel-drive vehicle.
Douz is home to the Museum of the Sahara, which showcases displays of the traditional nomadic desert culture of the Mrazig people who now mostly live a settled life in the town. Every year, the town hosts the International Festival of the Sahara, a four-day celebration of traditional desert culture.
As for water restrictions and swimming, some hotels have pools of salt water for a quick dip. The good news is that in winter, it is not uncommon to have the water privileges all to yourself.
Thalassotherapy, the use of seawater as a form of therapy which has been popular in France for years, is now widely available in Tunisia and highly sought out by tourists.
The next item on the agenda for us was true spa relaxation combined with a massage before heading back through the oases to enjoy the diversity offered by Tunisia.
Safe for tourists
The Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has advised travelers to exercise a “high degree of caution” when visiting Tunisia, but on the ground things are calm despite some ongoing demonstrations.
“Since the protests began, no tourist has been killed or injured,” said Ferid Fetni, marketing director at the Tunisian National Tourism Office in Montreal.
However, tourist traffic has declined drastically in many parts of the country.
According to the Ministry of Tourism, between January and October 2011, patronage decreased by 41.9 percent and revenue by 36 percent compared to the same period in 2010.
Some hotels are taking advantage of this break to renovate and introduce new services.
The Hotel Africa’s parent company is building a new spa center and surgical clinic in Sousse on the east coast in order to attract customers wishing to take advantage of lower costs—particularly from Europe.
Tunisia is fast becoming the favored destination of Europeans seeking plastic surgery, according to Dr. Hassem Nouira, the medical and technical director of the Amen Clinic in Mutual Amen City, an upscale neighborhood of Tunis.
“People stay an average of one week and have access to the most skilled surgeons. We maintain an ISO international standard that will be in effect next month,” said Dr. Nouira.
Another burgeoning sector is agri-tourism, popular among those who like to visit vineyards and taste locally made wines. There are 15 wineries in Tunisia, with three more in development.
During our trip, the sun never missed a day in the pleasantly warm but not-too-heavy climate.
In the Tunisia of today, visitors can enjoy the atmosphere of optimism and peaceful involvement that characterizes the country, and encounter a culture that is reinventing itself while imbued with the history of several millennia.
For more information, contact the Tunisian National Tourist Office in Montreal at 514-397-1182 or visit www.bonjour-tunisie.com.
This article was written during a press trip paid for by the Tunisian National Tourist Office.