By Tarek Amara
HAMMAMET, Tunisia (Reuters) – Ammar Jouini had been optimistic about this year, hoping that after Tunisia’s tourism sector finally recovered from years of pain caused by militant attacks in 2015, his souvenir business might also be looking up.
But with the coronavirus devastating holiday bookings, he is thinking of shutting up his shop in the popular beach resort of Hammamet and seeking new work for the season.
“I have to wait three or four days to sell only one piece. My costs are much higher than my income. It seems the difficulties will return again,” he said.
Tunisia had been gearing up for a season of record visitor numbers that politicians hoped would make up for gloom elsewhere in the economy. But last week Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh said forecast economic growth had fallen to 1% from 2.7%, citing the virus.
In another blow to the tourist trade, Tunisia has announced it will require everyone arriving from abroad to self-isolate for two weeks.
Tourism accounts for nearly a tenth of Tunisia’s economy, is its second-biggest employer after agriculture and provides an important source of foreign currency.
The crash that followed the 2015 attacks caused gross domestic product (GDP) growth to slow to 0.5% that year from an expected 3%. It contributed to a sharp fall in the value of Tunisia’s currency the following year and ongoing economic troubles.
Tunisia agreed a loan program in 2016 with the International Monetary Fund but it expires in April and the new government, agreed in February after months of wrangling, is now trying to negotiate a replacement.
Jouini’s shop, full of stuffed camels, painted pottery, t-shirts, red fezzes and postcards, is far from the only business facing hard times in Hammamet, where resorts stretch along the sandy beach each side of the pretty walled city and its fort.
While Jouini spoke, other souvenir sellers played football in the street, their shops empty. Nearby, Ramadan Jlassi sat with his horse-drawn carriage, waiting for custom.
He does not earn more than 10 dinars ($3.50) a day and has three sons, he said. “It is hard to buy the basics for my family,” he said.
Tunisia has confirmed 13 cases of the coronavirus, mostly people who have recently arrived from abroad. It has closed schools early for their scheduled spring holiday and stopped some international travel.
Spring bookings at the Hasdrubal hotel, one of the smartest in town, stand at 15%, a quarter of the usual level in March, said general manager Samir Ncir.
“There is stagnation. Many reservations were canceled,” he said. The hotel is not yet planning to lay off staff though it may delay signing up seasonal workers, hoping that the epidemic will pass and tourists will return in the summer.
“We expect the pattern to return at the end of May and the beginning of June. But we may have to put off signing contracts with casual workers in the summer,” he said.
But for Jouini, who has two children, the outlook is not good. “It will be complicated for me and my family because this is our only income,” he said.
(Reporting by Tarek Amara; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Giles Elgood)