Revolutionary Tourism: Time for a Trip to Tunisia?

An old fishing boat in Tabarka, Tunisia-- a city with both gorgeous beaches and a rich history

The protests in Tunisia left the tourism sector devastated, but the new interim government is already arguing that Tunisia is ready for visitors.

“The revolution that this country just went through offers new opportunities insofar as it has shown off an extraordinary people to the world,”  said the new tourism minister Mehdi Haouas.

Tunisia has long been a popular vacation destination for many Europeans who come to relax at tranquil Mediterranean resorts, soaking up the simple pleasures of jasmine perfumed air and freshly caught grilled fish. This image of the country as a nice beach getaway is one of the reasons the protests caught so many by surprise-- beneath the picturesque surface, there were real social and political problems brewing.

Many are arguing that tourists should visit Tunisia simply to inject money back into the economy, after tourism revenues dropped 40% in January, while the protests were taking place.

“We want to reassure all our friendly countries who send their citizens on vacation in Tunisia, that they can from now on do so in total security in addition to an atmosphere of absolute freedom,” Mr. Haouas said.

While Tunisia is indeed a wonderful country to visit, the revolution that caught many educated and well-traveled Westerners by surprise should serve as a reminder about one of the many challenging pleasures of travel-- in-country knowledge.

Staring into crystalline waters with the Blackberry lodged safely at the bottom of the luggage encourages a type of relaxation that oftentimes precludes a bit of cultural and historical exploration. For those who have travelled a much longer distance to reach Tunisia, the cultural experience is oftentimes a more salient feature in their trip. As Jerry Sorkin, the founder of TunisUSA explained:

While American tourists have always been a very small minority of Tunisia's tourism industry, they represent a distinct group of tourists from the millions of European tourists who come to spend their time in a Tunisian seaside resort. Rather, Americans come to Tunisia to appreciate the diverse cultural attributes of the county: from the extensive archaeological sites of Roman and pre-Roman origin, to the indigenous architecture of the southern desert regions. Now, the new attraction is seeing a civil society that appears to be going through an orderly transition.

While there are plenty of Americans who come simply to enjoy the beach, and tons of Europeans who enjoy the architecture and museums (and people not from Europe or the States who do both), the point that different travelers have different goals is a cogent one.

TunisUSA is a great example of one tour operator who is focused on delivering a rewarding, specialized experience to those who are interested in a specific cultural or historic segment of the country.

Most people who self-identify as more "sustainable" travelers, and those who consider their impact on a region, typically have an interest in the everyday lives of people who live there.

If anything, the "surprising" revolution in Tunisia should be a reminder that when traveling, it is enriching to slow down and get to know some of the people you are surrounded by.

Photo Credit: Isaac Bolger