In recent years the Tunisian tourism promoters have broken out of the ‘three S’s’ - sun, sea and sand - and begun to offer a distinctively Third World tourist product: the EXOTIC. As one Tunisian tourism official put it, exoticism is what could push Tunisia in front of the other sun-and-sand Mediterranean countries.
The exotic Third World is represented in the city of Hammamet by the medina, or old town, and its souk, or market. The souk is full of shops selling leather handbags - not a particularly traditional item, but one which takes advantage of cheap raw materials and labor.
The soak is also full of young men offering their services as guides. They are pretty canny as to why people might choose an African destination over a European or North American one as one said, ‘They want something different ... but not too different.’
So brief glimpses of the exotic have to be controlled. In Tunis there are two main streets in the souk - one for the tourists, one for the Tunisians. And in Hammamet there are tourist cafes and Tunisian cafes - though they are right next to each other, the two populations never mix. The Hammamet soak was in fact built quite recently and is advertised as being ‘perfectly reproduced according to the traditional soaks’.
But it isn’t acceptable for the soak to seem completely fabricated. The staging of the exotic must be done such that there is at least a semblance of ‘authenticity’.
The tourists straying from the ‘three 5’ hotels want to see something resembling the way people really live, the authentic experience. One wants ‘to see the real Tunisia’, as one tourist said, if only for a day.
Recognizing this, the Tunisian tourism authorities are expanding their promotion of Tunisia’s more exotic attractions - the Sahara, the soaks (real and ‘reproduced’), nomads, and oases. Hotels are increasingly offering such things as ‘traditional Tunisian dances’ after the evening meal. The tourists are ‘spontaneously’ invited to join in, thus giving the impression of naturalness and authenticity.
At one particularly notorious tourist attraction, groups of tourists watch traditionally dressed Tunisian women grinding flour and singing songs on an ‘authentic’ farm. This is followed by a huge meal - a tradition which most Tunisians would only see at engagements and weddings. Finally, the farm workers are pressed into balancing jars and singing more songs in happy-peasant fashion. One tourist brochure describes the
Tunisians as ‘a population which is both serious when working and joyful in its moments of leisure’.
Most tour packages now feature ‘Saharan safaris’ out to more or less authentic Berber villages and the tourists I talked to had generally enjoyed these tours.
But even in these carefully planned scenarios the authenticity can get out of control. For example, European tourists - the great majority of visitors to Tunisia are German, French and British - tend to find the country dirty.
Being a successful promoter of exotic tourism depends a lot on the ability to figure out how much dirt your customers want to
see. If everything is spotless, then the event is too obviously staged. But if the sample of exoticism - the Berber tent, or the camel ride - is too dirty, than the limits of ‘authenticity’ have been transgressed.
Something similar occurs with the young hustlers in the souks. As one Tunisian who works the Hammamet souk explained to me (franchement) one reason so few tourists return to Tunisia for a second visit is that ‘The Tunisians steal from them’. An exciting look at exotic Tunisia can become an unpleasant encounter with the realities of Third World life. Inevitably, Tunisia’s problems - particularly its combination of a very young population and soaring unemployment - rise to the surface.
The marketable differences between a Third World country like Tunisia and more developed countries are not however things like unemployment or the lack of plumbing. So what in fact is bought and sold is more a glimpse of the ‘happy natives’ than of the reality of Tunisian life. It is then entirely appropriate that a popular feature of one company’s Tunisian tour brochure is the chance to see a ‘real mirage’.
Scott Malcomson is an American journalist who was based in North Africa.