Sun loungers had a lot less competition for a seaside spot in Hammamet this summer. In the unstable wake of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, visitor numbers have been reported as at least half of the usual seven million.
Ben Ali’s mid-January demise took much of the world, and even regular Tunisian
visitors, by surprise, the subtle changes in the country’s tourism industry
have not been hard to spot over the last few years. The country’s independent
hotels have provided little competition to the 600-bed beachside resorts; instead
they attract a different type of traveller who is as interested in the
country’s captivating history and cultural scene as its beaches and blue skies.
And this new breed of hotelier is passionate about Tunisian identity and crafting
an authentic sense of place.
heart of the Tunis medina, La Chambre
Bleue remained open for business during all but the most tumultuous days of
January and February, despite being just a few minutes stroll from the sit-ins
and tear gas of Place de le Kasbah. Foreign press and NGOs may have made up the
majority of their guests, but summer has since delivered travellers who were
keen to see how the new Tunisia was faring.
Bleue is at once profoundly traditional and bravely contemporary, a taste of
both Tunisia’s past and its possibilities. As owner Marouane Ben Miled said, “Our
revolution gave us back our country, so now it's easier for us to share it with
our guests.” He is unequivocal about the importance of sustainable and
culturally relevant hotels, and is positive about the way small hotels and
B&Bs are organising themselves. A new website, 1001 Tunisie, documents both
the hotels and the work of a symbiotic band of designers, artisans, gallery
owners, retailers and restaurateurs.
Patrick Marguier’s Dar Fatma, in Sidi Bou
Said, was one of the first properties to be recognised by the Tunisian National
Tourism Office as an ”alternative” tourism business. Set in an impossibly poetic
position overlooking the Bay of Tunis, it is quietly upmarket, but decidedly
local, with an interior that honours the traditional village house’s intricate,
intimate layout, gently pushing its straightforward vernacular into a textured
modernism. Breakfasts feature home-made citronnade
and fresh bombalouni doughnuts, and dinner
recommendations include four-dinar couscous places alongside the country’s best
is keenly awaiting the post-election calm, but also notes that Dar Fatma has
been less affected by the instability than the larger hotels. At the same time,
she notes there has been a promising number of restaurant openings in Tunis’ northern
suburbs, as well as many exhibitions and concerts being held.
of Dar HI, in Nefta in the country’s far
Saharan south, joked, “We realized Dar HI was part of a trend when the governor
of Nefta, the Tunisian National Tourism Office, and the minister of tourism
started calling us to tell us our little eco-lodge was important to the new
Tunisia.” The remote, deceptively ambitious project is a collaboration between
French designer Matali
Crasset and established hoteliers Patrick Elouarghi and Philippe Chapelet, who stress
the operation’s underlying ethos: “it was obvious that we had to open an
establishment that would be ecological, and also completely accepted by the
inhabitants of Nefta, both architecturally and socially’.
in the kitchen and use produce sourced from Dar HI’s organic garden or local
markets; rooms push architectural boundaries but also reflect traditional
desert structures and the desert itself; a luxurious hammam is fed solely by an
underground thermal spring; and there are interesting artisan projects in the
works, including one with Deyma, a well-known date retailer.
“Luckily we already attract visitors that want a
different type of hotel experience, and not just a stay in the block-cement
hotels along the coast,” Shukor
said. “We are convinced that the Jasmine
Revolution will be the start of a very interesting new Tunisia that is
economically viable, with a lot of engineers, lawyers, writers, designers,
photographers and intellectuals that will finally be able to express themselves
of October’s election remains a cause for anxiety, and, yes, everyone would
love a few more million visitors to return next summer. But in the meantime the
spirit of new beginnings is a hard one to temper.
The article 'Tunisia’s vanguard hotels' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.