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Tunisia to tourists: Never mind the Salafis, feel the warmth

A. Craig Copetas

“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it,” was Rudyard Kipling’s foremost recommendation to adventurous 19th century tourists intent on visiting troublesome locations like the ruins of Carthage in the French Protectorate of Tunisia. Some 150 years later, Tunisia’s prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, recently told holidaymakers that the new prime directive for enjoying a vacation  in his roiling Islamic North African nation is ”not being afraid of the beards.”

Calling all travel agents: Tunisia needs tourists, and Jebali’s proclamation is the latest salvo in a global marketing campaign launched last summer called Tunisia, Where Dreams Come True:

“The jihadist nightmare engulfs the entire region,” says the Maghreb nation’s ambassador to France, Adel Fekih. “We must fight this internationally. This is not a local brawl. Our development as a nation is linked to tourism.”

Tunisia is much smaller than its North African neighbors, and juts out into the Mediterranean as if Algeria (to the west) and post-Qaddafi Libya (to the east) were trying to squeeze it out like toothpaste from a tube. With such countries for company, the democratic politicians who emerged from the country’s Jasmine Revolution in January 2011 believe tourism is a persuasive weapon against the Tunisian arm of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)—the group which claimed responsibility for the recent deadly attack on the Ain Amenas gas installation in Algeria and the ongoing bloodbath in nearby Mali. AQIM is thought to have been training Salafist extremists in Tunisia, who have become much more active since the overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, and claimed responsibility for a spate of assaults on tourist attractions in recent months.

The Tunisian Salafists, led by Saifallah Ben Houssein, a.k.a. Abou Ayadh, have demanded the government scrub out all fine art, museums, movie theaters and bars—as well as celebratory expeditions to Matmata, the ancient Berber town George Lucas used as the backdrop for the planet Tatooine (video) in Star Wars.

“The strategy of extremists is to make a lot of noise,” says Fekih, a graduate of Ohio State University. “They want to impose their laws.” The revolts have also cost jobs. Fekih says tourism accounted for between 5% and 7% of the country’s growing GDP before the revolution, and employed 12% of the population. French visitors, whose numbers once topped 2 million annually, last year dropped to 960,000, overwhelmed by the 1.9 million Libyan “tourists” who crossed the border for a respite from their own revolution. Overall, Tunisian tourism has fallen more than 33% since Ben Ali’s overthrow.

The question is whether Tunisia is condemned to suffer by geographic default. The 2013 Maplecroft Political Risk Atlas grades Tunisia “high risk.” The State Department’s list of High Risk Countries reckons a jaunt to Tunisia is about as merciless as a honeymoon in a Somalia beach resort. Still, look on the bright side: The land of Hannibal has yet to break into the top ten most dangerous vacation spots on Earth.

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