Each country has its own spirit that shines through. It hits you at a certain moment throughout your trip and you can really feel the essence of a country. It can be hard to recognize at times and often it may be missing altogether in some situations. However, it’s important to remember that every country has its own version of ‘Aloha’ and you can never count it out even in situations where you are sure it may not exist.
This past ten days in Tunisia has been an adventure of up and downs. Tunisia is a country re-building from the 2011 Arab Spring in more ways than just infrastructure. It’s tourism industry took a big hit during the Arab Spring but also took even bigger hits to It’s western market when mass shootings happened to foreign tourists only four years ago. Nothing bad at all happened on my trip, it’s just an important precursor to help you understand the current state of travel in Tunisia. You need to know where they have come from and what they have been through to understand where they are today.
I’ll start with the bottom line rather than finish with it. Tunisia is not travel ready for regular tourists. Group tours, guided tours and bus ventures may work out but self-guided tours around the country are met by a continuous string of unexpected obstacles.
I’m going to lay out the reasons why Tunisia still has a long way to go but also the reasons why it has a lot to offer. If you want to skip straight to the good stuff – the photos and adventures – it’s all at the bottom of this blog post!
The observations for me that suggest Tunisia isn’t yet ready for (more) tourism:
- Trash in Tunisia is everywhere and in huge amounts. It completely covers tourist attractions, outside the airport, beaches, hikes, parking lots, highways. It’s one of the most polluted countries I’ve ever been to.
- Transport in Tunisia is makeshift and even the locals are unsure of how to get from A to B when it comes from one town to the next or a cross-country trip. On countless occasions we were given suggestions by a local of a bus or a shared van or a taxi to find out they simply didn’t exist, it left five hours prior or was sold out the day before despite being told there was one every hour. Of course, we figured our way around it most of the time but there was no online or physical schedule or booking service of any kind and locals could only suggest to arrive to a certain parking lot the next day to hope to find a ‘louage’, which is a shared van that was almost always sold out, unavailable or crammed to the max if you were lucky. Basically it was a wild goose chase on multiple occasions even with the locals leading the way to find out where a van may be leaving from and if there even was one.
- Tricks and scams in Tunisia were rife. On multiple occasions taxi drivers, lounge drivers and local ‘helpers’ tried to have us pay 5x the amount of a taxi, van or transport. I felt constantly on edge waiting for the next man to ‘look me up and down’ and decide that I looked as if I would fancy paying double. With limited or often no other options, the reality is that you will likely pay double. These are the moments you question the spirit and I did directly ask a few people why they thought it was okay to try and rip me off and it was laughter and a total lack of care I heard in response. It took me back to some darker moments in India.
- Because of the downturn in Tourism, lots of accommodations and infrastructure is run-down, slow or not working. That means the photos you see of your hotel beforehand when you booked are likely quite old and show a better time. Showers not working, doors not working, paint stripped off and lots of other small issues slowly add up to cause a general frustration for travelers.
- One of our flights from Tunis Air was canceled the night before we were due to fly off the island of Djerba. There was no reason given just an email that said sorry your flight is canceled. We received it at 10pm the night before our flight, which was at 8am the next morning. There were no other flights available so we had to drive 10 hours, all the way from the south to the north the next day (which was an adventure in itself). Tunis Air still hasn’t sent an email suggesting it will be refunded or any follow-up. I’ve called several times and can’t get through to customer service. Apparently they have cancelled hundreds of flights in the last couple of months. They book the flights and if they don’t fill enough seats they just cancel it the night before leaving everyone stranded. Not okay for travelers on a schedule and a quick way to gain a bad reputation.
There were lots of other hiccups on top of those in just ten days but having said all that it was still of course a fun trip!
The spirit of Tunisia is there for all to bear witness
- A group of Tunis locals traveled all the way to Zaghouan to guide us up Djebel Zaghouan, a beautiful mountain peak an hour from Tunis. Their association guides anyone who emails them up the mountain for free. They enjoy the hike and see it as a way to show their beloved landscapes to others. One of the members told me they hoped if they traveled to another country someone would do the same for them. I told her it was admirable and I hoped that they would, although it is not the norm at all and usually even a friendly local will request payment for a full day of guiding a foreigner.
- At one of the moments in a small town of Enfidah, local van drivers were in the process of trying to rip us off. We didn’t know the prices but were being charged the equivalent of $20 for a 45 minute journey. They told us there was no van scheduled and it was a take it or leave it fee. With no choices we were almost about to just take the offer having already traveled 8 hours from the south that day already. What else can you do when you are 45km away from the destination with supposedly no buses or other means of transport. In the end the group of guys seemed shady, were behaving weird and even disrespectfully and seemed to be mocking us for accepting the offer of $20 (despite having no other choice apparently). We decided to screw that group of guys and walked off. We asked a young group of girls who hadn’t seen what happened how to get to Zaghouan and they said for 2 dinar ($80 cents we could catch a bus). The men rushed over and told them off for telling us. I guess this story goes in the non-spirited and good-spirited column. The girls then stayed with us for half an hour chatting and then the bus came and off we went.
- Lots of locals had great chats with us and were very nice and went above and beyond to show hospitality at their hotel or tourist attraction/restaurant.
I don’t normally go through negatives like that of a country but there were a lot of moments in Tunisia where it was quite frustrating even for someone with a number of years of travel under their belt. There were just too many moments that left me puzzled as to what on earth was going on so I thought I’d give a little candid insight into the week. When I look at the photos it looks like an epic 10 days and there were great moments but overall there are equally as many ‘What the!’ moments as there were beautiful landscapes.
With those negative and positive observations addressed, I’ll share the three highlights of the trip with you.
The first was Djerbahood, a neighborhood on the island of Djerba that has had over 150 artists come and paint murals on its walls. It’s incredible to walk through and see different styles of artwork in a village where people are living as per normal. Some of the artworks are just beautiful designs or animals while others have a political message or a deeper meaning.
DJEBEL ZAGHOUAN HIKE
The highlight of the trip was hiking to the top of Djebel Zaghouan, a summit in the town of Zaghouan, which is about one hour from Tunis. It was a 20km round-trip hike with over 1200m of incline throughout the day. The Zaghouan Mountain Association sent a few members from Tunis to guide us for free and share their local knowledge with us.
The unexpected highlight of the trip was visiting Zriba Oliya, which is an abandoned village in the mountains. The residents left it to start a new town in a lower area in the 1960’s and now it is in ruins. You can explore through the rooms, arches, buildings and even climb on the peaks that sit either side of the village. It was a magical spot to watch our last sunset in Tunisia.