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Tourism in Tunisia? Only for the brave

TUNIS, Feb 16, 2011 – Tunisia has weathered riots, curfews, a state of emergency and ongoing unrest as it undergoes its historic "Jasmine Revolution": but that has not stopped a few hardy tourists from flocking to its sunny shores.

Indeed, the heady events propelled French speech therapist Francois Huet to grab round-trip tickets for a two-day trip to Tunis "for tourism but also to live history."

"My heart was beating hard every day during the standoff with Ben Ali, and there was one moment I decided to go," said 49-year-old Huet of the popular uprising that ultimately ousted longtime strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14.

"It\’s admirable what the people have done. I came to tell them I found them courageous."

Canadian seniors Nicole and Richard Champagne also ignored the advice of family, friends and their travel agency to stay home and travelled to the north African country in the midst of the political upheaval.

The couple had been preparing their trip to the southern island of Djerba and coastal city of Sousse since autumn.

"We never told ourselves we should never go," said Richard Champagne, 77.

Wife Nicole acknowledged "there were little pockets of violence but nothing generalised."

In a bid to stem the worry back home, the couple were keeping in touch with their family by Internet.

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To be sure, these adventurers remain the hardy few. The tourists who departed in droves during the January protests have not refilled Tunisia-bound airplanes. There are precious few foreign couples strolling down Habib Bouguiba Boulevard in downtown Tunis — the hub of the popular revolt.

For while western capitals such as Paris and London have lowered their travel warnings, they are hardly sounding the all-clear.

French-Iraqi tourist Ali Ramza was also prudent. While he would "obviously not" attend rallies, the 53-year-old interpreter wants to see the Tunis suburb of Carthage, site of fabled Roman ruins.

And, he says, he wants to "breathe in this atmosphere, this pride to see an Arab population liberate itself singlehandedly."

Ramzi acknowledged a "little sentiment of voyeurism" as thousands of Tunisians continue to experience hardship and some try to emigrate to Europe.

"But these people need tourism," he said.

To be sure, Tunisia does need tourism. The sector accounts for 6.5 percent of the country\’s GDP and employs 350,000 people. The flight of thousands of vacationers triggered a 40-percent drop in January earnings with observers predicting a similar pattern this month.

While some European tour operators announce business picking up and others, like France\’s FRAM, launch special promotions, a rebound to normality seems uncertain in the immediate future.

But some in the industry, like 35-year-old French Tunisian Walid Hached, remain upbeat — despite having all his January bookings wiped out and no new ones for the next four months.

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"If the price of liberty is no work for a few months, that\’s OK," Hached said.

Still, he added, reviving the economy "is the best way" to preserve Tunisia\’s fledgling democracy.

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