On yet another trip, your humble editor visited yet two more UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Tunis, which features the Medina (old city) and the ruins of Carthage, which ruled the Mediterranean Sea before losing to the Roman Empire in the three Punic Wars most of Western readers will dimly remember from history lessons in school. At the same time, 2,200 years ago, Qinshi Huangdi for the first time united China and had the Terracotta Army in Xi’an produced to guard his gravesite.
Tunisia did away with the need for Chinese to apply for a visa when visiting the country in February last year, following the example of the Kingdom of Morocco, which scrapped the visa requirement in June 2016.
The arrival numbers from China have developed impressively. Comparing just the arrivals in the first half of each year, the numbers grew from 2,000 in H1 2016 to 8,000 in H1 2017 and 15,000 in H1 2018. However, even the 2018 number represents only a fifth of a per mille of all outbound travels, meaning that only one out of 5,000 Chinese outbound travellers visits Tunisia. For the Tunisian tourism industry likewise 15,000 arrivals count for less than half a percent of all international arrivals in H1 2018.
As part of a project financed by the German government to create new job opportunities for Tunisians in their own country, COTRI had the honour to work with the Tunisian tourism industry in the past 12 months, doing research, organising CTW training sessions and bringing delegations to business talks and fairs in Asia on the occasions of ITB Asia in Singapore and ITB China in Shanghai.
Tunisia offers monuments with 3,000 years of history, a vivid culture, beautiful nature including beaches and deserts, hospitable inhabitants, sunny weather; offers in great variety but in a relatively small space, meaning less needed to go from one attraction to the next.
The traditional European source markets for the beach-centred offers of the Tunisian tourism industry reacted negatively to a tragic terrorist attack of 2015, which cost the life of more than 30 tourists, amplified by the growing general anxiety about travelling to Muslim countries. Arrival numbers fell from more than 7 million to 5.5 million, a development which shows its gravity even clearer when keeping in mind that more than two million of these overall arrivals originate in neighbouring Algeria, which do not add much to tourism earnings.
It became obvious that for Tunisia to promote the stability of its tourism industry, it needed to diversify its source markets. China appeared to be an ideal market to develop, given its size and growth potential.
What can other destinations learn from the development in the two years since Tunisia became a visa-free destination for Chinese citizens? First of all, that percentage increases in arrivals are suitable for triumphant press releases, but do not change much on the ground when starting from almost zero arrivals. Secondly, that for destinations which have existed mostly as a 3S Sun, Sea, Sand destination, competing mostly on accessibility and price with their competitors, the Chinese market can only be successfully attracted when products are adapted and new products are developed. Chinese travellers do not fly for ten hours or more to relax on a beach, they want to see all major sights and collect as many experiences with local culture and nature as possible within a short period of time.
The destination will also need to develop a clear brand message as to what is distinguishing it from others, more famous destinations, which in most cases will also offer beaches and cultural highlights.
Thirdly, selling the product beach holidays requires lower levels of market intelligence as to the differences between source markets. A Danish, German or Hungarian visitor to the beach resorts of Hammamet or Djerba will be satisfied with the provision of the same product. In the case of Chinese visitors, the differences between sun- and lowcost-seeking first-time travellers from second-tier cities in Northern China and educated experienced travellers from the first-tier cities in the south need to be understood to create satisfied Chinese, who after going home will act as brand ambassadors.
Finally, and most importantly, it is not easy for both the government and tourism industry in such destinations to change their mind from thinking about tourism solely in terms of holiday-makers coming in groups organised by source market-based tour operators for relaxation with a bit of culture-based daytrips added for flavour (or rainy days).
Accordingly, what was written here not long ago about South Africa, turns out to be true in many ways at the other end of the continent too: The vast majority of Chinese visitors arrive in rather low-end market package tour groups, the itineraries on offer are almost all of the old-fashioned ‘jump-out-of-the-bus-take-a-photo-rush-on’ type. In the case of Tunisia, an additional problem is added by the fact that many itineraries are based on trips to Morocco, with Tunisia just being the add-on offer provided for variety.
The “Second Wave” of Chinese travellers looking for experiences rather than sightseeing – which would provide business to service providers offering deeper immersion into local culture and nature – has not arrived in Tunisia yet, even though travel in Tunisia is quite safe, certainly much safer compared to South Africa.
The experiences of Tunisian tour operators with their Chinese business partners are therefore mixed and the learning process from the groups, which follow a tight schedule and are as much as possible isolated from the local companies, very limited.
In a nutshell: Without products suitable for special interest groups travelling in customised groups or as FITs, developed and communicated in a meaningful way based on a deep understanding of the market, beach holiday destinations with weak brand identities will end up dealing only with low-end package tours sold predominantly with the argument of cheap prices and will miss out on the many opportunities the diversified demand in China offers.
For Tunisia it is still early days and the chance to gain a glamorous position on the mental map of Chinese travellers still exists. The country is certainly worth the visit.
A successful and peaceful week for all our readers!
Prof. W.G. Arlt and the COTRI Weekly team