Tunisia Holidays

Tunisia – Mediterranean Africa

 It’s easy to categorise Tunisia as just another beach.  Indeed for a time the country’s tourism marketing seemed focused solely on its sandy shores ignoring that they were one and the same with the North African coast.  Certainly Tunisia does seaside very well.  However, beyond the Mediterranean, landscapes vary greatly, from oak forests, gentle rolling hills, vineyards and mountains to salt lakes, unforgiving arid planes and endless dune seas. 

Together with a contemporary melange of Arab, Berber, French and African cultural influences, rich Roman ancient history, significant WW2 heritage and a pre-eminent roll in the ‘Arab Spring’, Tunisia reveals itself as a far more complex and intriguing destination than at first glance.

Bordering Algeria and Libya, Tunisia is similar in size to England and Wales combined, with a population of 10 million, 30% of whom are concentrated in just four coastal cities – Tunis, Sfax, Kairouan and Sousse.  Lacking the petrochemical punch of its neighbours, tourism has been a Tunisian mainstay. 

The beaches of Hammamet, Monastir, Boujaffar, Gammarth and others have long been tempting escapes for pallid northern Europeans.  Upmarket hotels offer international levels of comfort and as the country fights to rebuild its tourism numbers, flight and hotel packages are even better value then ever.

Elsewhere, headline sites of antiquity such as the remarkable El Djem amphitheatre, the multi-layered ruins of Carthage, and the intestinal medinas of Tunis and Sousse see Tunisia chalk up more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other African country except Ethiopia.  A consequence of this rich concentration of dramatic backdrops, both manmade and natural, is Tunisia’s A-list cinematic celebrity status, playing staring rolls in George Lucas’s Star Wars franchise, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient and Monty Python’s timeless satire, The Life of Brian.

At two and a half hours flying time, getting to Tunis or Enfidha from London or a slew of UK regionals is hardly a long haul. Ferries from mainland Italy, France and Sicily further strengthen northerly connections and it’s not uncommon to see European cars zipping along Tunisia’s modern peage, drivers quite likely en route to chic holiday villas.

In the country’s south-west, the unstoppable sandy tsunami of the Grand Erg Oriental’s spills over from Algeria, part of a 100,000 square kilometre sea of dunes.  Step forward the somewhat gritty tourist town of Douz whose reputation as ‘The Gateway to the Sahara’ has been built upon sand, offering desert adventures, from day-trips to an oasis, to 4x4 safaris, horseriding hacks and hard core 100km camel treks.

However, that’s not to say the country runs entirely on souvenir ceramics, stuffed toy camels and backshish.  If you choose to holiday in Tunisia it’s possible your Beneton shirts are coming home to mama, your rental car was bolted together in one of Tunisia’s 60 assembly plants and if you jetted in on an Airbus aircraft it’s likely its avionics were ‘Made in Tunisia’ too.

In 2011, after 24 years of Western-backed dictatorship, the popular uprising of the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ saw kleptocratic former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his much reviled wife Leila book a one-way, last minute, all-inclusive package to sunny Saudi Arabia.  Though the process of political reconstruction is still ‘work in progress’, since late 2011 the country has been administered by a democratically elected coalition led by the moderate Islamic Ennahda party. 

In Tunisia today French chic and Arab exoticism swirl around each other in a heady cocktail of secular European, Arab and Islamic living.  A coastal strip of easy-going Mediterranean relaxation proffers breezes, bikinis and Bacardi and Coke, whilst inland the Muezzin’s calls are more regular than disco bass beats, and in the places in between remnants of ancient empires are reminders of human frailty and time’s relentless passage. 

Against all this, beyond the coastal resorts and beyond the villages, where the tarmac runs out and roads become tracks in the sand, the vertigo-inducing emptiness of the Sahara awaits in grand indifference.