Tunisia risks controversy with new travel ads

Ads mix politics with sex, potentially offending tourists and Tunisians; one ad shows Roman ruins, says: "They say Tunisia is nothing but ruins."

tunisian flag_311 reuters (photo credit: Louafi Larbi / Reuters)
tunisian flag_311 reuters
(photo credit: Louafi Larbi / Reuters)
Determined to regain its place as a Mediterranean tourist paradise, Tunisia is adopting an edgy approach by reminding potential visitors of the turmoil, detentions and deaths that brought down its autocrat Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali, but that hasn’t yet restored peace and quiet.
In the last few weeks, billboards have appeared in Paris and London depicting a smiling, sultry and apparently nude woman, enjoying the benefits of a massage. "They say that in Tunisia, some people receive heavy-handed treatment," it says. Another shows ancient Roman ruins with the words: "They say Tunisia is nothing but ruins."
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The campaign has stirred controversy at home and abroad, but beset by a depressed tourism sector and an economy in the doldrums, Tunisia has little to lose in a go-for-broke strategy to bring back visitors. Like Egypt, its bigger neighbor to the east, the Arab Spring has garnered it a lot of Western admirers but has frightened sight-seers and beach denizens.
"We identified the main obstacle to incoming tourism as the fear of post-revolutionary Tunisia, so we decided to face the issue directly," Syrine Cherif, managing director of the Tunis office of Memac Ogilvy, the advertising company in charge of the government-sponsored campaign, told The Media Line.  
The country's revenue from tourism will likely shrink by 50% this year, Trade and Tourism Minister Mehdi Houas told the Reuters news agency on Wednesday, bringing in revenues of just $1.3 billion, compared with $2.55 billion in 2010. The number of arrivals will also fall by half to 3.5 million.
With its long, sandy beaches, ancient ruins and short flight-time from Europe, tourism is natural for the country. It accounts for 6.5% of Tunisia's gross domestic product and for 50% of its foreign exchange earnings, employing one of every five Tunisians.
The BBC reported that the ad campaign, which is appearing on London buses, had offended some people, although its report didn’t name anyone who said they reacted negatively.
But Cherif said Tunisians' unique sense of humor, like the one in the ad campaign, helped them through the difficult years of Ben Ali's dictatorship. She denied that her campaign, launched three weeks ago in France and expanding to 14 European countries, offended Tunisian sensibilities.
"Our campaign represents the new Tunisia. The dictatorship is over now, and although the path to democracy is still long – we have set our eyes on our goal." 
But human rights activist Masoud Ramadani said that evoking the memory of Tunisia's violent past was a bad marketing idea.
"Let's leave the revolution alone," Ramadani told The Media Line. "We badly need tourism, but I don't think we should refer to torture. I don't think any intelligent person would buy this add."
Ramadani said he doubted that the typical tourist was influenced by politics. Tourism grew during Ben Ali years, despite his reputation as a corrupt and oppressive dictator, he said. But tourists didn’t make their choice of vacation destination on politics.
If the tourism commission wants to employ politics, it should portray Tunisia realistically, as an attractive destination because it is in the process of developing into a full-fledged democracy. "Sometimes, I'm really embarrassed about how they present Tunisia," he said.
Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution erupted last December, inspiring the wave of anti-government unrest across the Middle East and North Africa that continues to rattle the region today. The rebellion was relatively short, with Ben-Ali fleeing into exile three weeks after the revolt started, but in the meantime 200 people died.
The country continues to experience periodic bursts of violence, which human rights activists blame on loyalists of the old regime, and is struggling to make the transition to democracy. Last week, elections for a constituent assembly were postponed by three months to October 23. 
Tour packages like TIU Germany and Thomas Cook AG are trying to encourage people to go back to Tunisia and Egypt, after those countries' revolutions and MSC Cruises said this week it would resume calls to Tunisia, beginning in July. Holland America and German line AIDA Cruises began calling in Tunisia last month, but several others, including Costa Cruises and Disney Cruise Line, haven’t yet returned.
Tunisian singer Muhammad Al-Jbali also believed that his countrymen were resilient enough to deal with the region's painful realities. In a new video clip called "Who Are You?" Al-Jbali portrayed Ben Ali alongside deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi as videogame caricatures firing at helpless citizens.
He told the Saudi-owned website MBC.net that his choice to convey the violence of North African dictators in a comic manner stemmed from the fact that the Arab dictators were "funny and sad at the same time." The somber words of the song indeed run counter to its comic imagery.
"Who are you? You've killed a people and had no mercy. Today the Arab nation is liberated. It will plan and it will decide."
Larbi Sadiki, a political scientist at Britain’s University of Exeter and an expert on democratization in the Arab world, said the sexual imagery of the new campaign was more likely to agitate Tunisians, who are almost all traditional Muslims, than the political allusion.
"Tunisia is largely a religious society," Sadiki told The Media Line. "I don’t think people will care about the political connotation as much as the sexual one."