Tourists ride animals in Djerba, Tunisia 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
DJERBA, Tunisia - Sun worshipers are welcome on Tunisia's beaches even though an Islamist government now runs the Mediterranean country which relies heavily on tourism to fill its coffers, its prime minister said on Monday.
"We will respect the traditions of our visitors in their food, and clothing and lifestyle," Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said at a conference to promote tourism held on the island of Djerba, known for its white sandy beaches and luxury spas.
As if to reinforce his message, a wide selection of alcoholic beverages was on offer at the opening ceremony of the tourism conference on Sunday night.
Jebali's moderate Islamist Ennahda party took power at the head of a coalition in an election after last year's revolution, which ousted veteran leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and sparked the Arab Spring.
Tunisia, which relies on tourism for almost 7 percent of its gross domestic product, saw visitor numbers and tourist revenues drop by more than a third after the revolution.
"Unfortunately, some want to paint Tunisia as a jungle and sow fear of the Ennahda government but this does not reflect reality and the proof is that these critics speak freely," Jebali told journalists on the sidelines of the conference.
About 5 million tourists visited the country last year, down from 7 million in 2010 as fears over security caused tourists to flee or to cancel bookings.
Tunisia has since made a relatively smooth transition to democracy and tourists are returning to its coastal resorts. But occasional protests and lingering fears that Ennahda will slowly seek to Islamize society have held back the recovery, as has the economic crisis in Europe.
Jebali said bookings had improved for 2012 and Tunisia hoped to regain its 7 million tourists and top that by encouraging visits to historical, cultural sites and the southern desert.
In an effort to allay fears that Tunisia would impose sharia, or Islamic law, as some conservative Islamists have demanded, Jebali said a constitution is being drafted that would protect the "civil" nature of the state.
"We want to reassure everyone and even our own people that there is nothing to fear from freedom and democracy," he said.