A cruise ship docked in a Tunisian port on Wednesday for the first time since 2019, carrying over 700 passengers and rare good news for tourism operators battered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Spirit of Discovery, run by UK operator Saga, landed at La Goulette port on the edge of Tunis where it was welcomed by camels and a band playing traditional Tunisian music.
“We were not trading for about 18 months… but we’ve been back in business since last July and this is our first call here to northern Africa,” said Captain Kim Tanner.
British tourist John Hilton, 75, said he was “absolutely delighted” to be in Tunisia.
“We’re certainly pleased to get out and see some of the world and get to some of the places that we haven’t seen,” he said.
The ship was carrying 724 passengers, mostly British but also German, Italian, and Spanish, according to Tourism Minister Moez Belhassen.
He said the cruise liner was the first of at least 40 expected to dock in Tunis this year.
“This is very important for many sectors… especially given the spending power of tourists,” he said.
After two disastrous seasons, Tunisian authorities are hoping to bring visitor numbers and spending back to 60 percent of 2019 levels, the best season since the North African country’s 2011 revolution.
In normal years, tourism makes up around 14 percent of Gross Domestic Product and provides a living for two million Tunisians, around a sixth of the population.
But the sector has suffered several crises since the 2011 revolt, which inspired revolutions across the Arab world.
In 2015, ISIS group-linked militants waged a string of deadly attacks at key tourist hotspots.
The sector had started to recover when the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns sent visitor numbers and revenues tumbling by some 80 percent.