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The Mediterranean’s last resort

The cost of living crisis, airline chaos and concerns over the environment mean pre-pandemic tourist numbers remain a distant prospect in Tunisia

All photos: Simon Speakman Cordall

Kenneth and Caroline Prosser lounge under their parasol, the Mediterranean sun beating down upon its faded yellow cover. Nearby, bathers dive and swim in the hotel pool, while Kenneth looks on. He leans forward, smiling, “This will be our first holiday in two years,” he says, recalling the months they spent confined to their house in Swansea as the world endured the worst of the pandemic, “That was to Tunisia, to this hotel actually.” 

Outside the hotel, small numbers of returning tourists are beginning to populate the broad palm-lined esplanade that skirts the seafront of the resort town of Hammamet. Isolated against the sun-bleached landscape, small clusters of distant stick figures cluster in the shade of beachfront cafes and huddle under parasols. In the distance comes the sound of workmen busying themselves rebuilding the beach bars and storefronts that line the coast, all in anticipation of the throngs of tourists they hope will soon fill its empty spaces. 

Kenneth and Caroline Prosser

As tourists once more descend upon the deserted coastal resorts of Europe, so too does the environmental damage they bring with them. Moreover, vulnerable hospitality workers and businesses, struggling to recover from two years of inactivity, have little choice but to smile,  welcome them and begin the cycle of ecological destruction anew. 

For almost two years, large swathes of Europe’s coastline were saved from the annual deluge of plastic and other solid wastes that herald the tourists’ seasonal arrival. Resort towns’ narrow roads, once gridlocked, were freed from congestion and the skies, formerly the jockeying grounds for package airlines ferrying tourists to and from their fortnight in the sun, were empty. For context, in environmental terms, two years means little. However, it could have marked the beginnings of a sea change in how we think about travel and tourism. Thus far, the tide remains out. 

There is a reason travel is referred to as an ‘industry’. Before Covid-19 grounded the continent’s aircraft and shuttered its beachfronts, tourism contributed 2,191bn euros to the European coffers, accounting for about 9.5% of its GDP. In some countries, such as Spain, that percentage ran to 14.6%

However, as industries go, it’s one that appears to place little value on either its relationship with the environment it depends upon or its workers, as competing resorts all race for the hard-won incomes of tourists, as often as not, looking for the best deal on offer. As the pandemic took hold, tourism workers, already among the lowest paid in Europe, found themselves out in the cold. It’s estimated that some 3.6m tourism jobs were lost during the worst of the pandemic, a figure mitigated only by the job protection schemes introduced by many EU governments.Those same governments, now firmly enmeshed within a rising cost of living crisis and war in Ukraine, are hungry to claw back as much of that money as they can and, as far as possible, are doing so without risking the resorts’ vulnerable profit margins by imposing further environmental protections.

In pockets, at least, some of those protections appear to have survived the worst of the pandemic. In Tunisia, Néjib Brahim is the host manager at the Bélisaire & Thalasso, part of the wider Poulina Group, in Hammamet. His chain has just put in for the sustainable tourism certificate, Travel Life, which measures all the hotel’s operations against their environmental impact. “To get the certificate, we have to dispose of all plastics carefully, recycle more, separate waste,” he says, describing the first week in what is expected to be a long and costly process. However, while sustainable travel initiatives, which go some way in mitigating environmental impact, are helpful, they remain very much reliant on economies of scale. 

“A man with just one hotel will not do this,” Néjib continues, “It’s expensive. You have to buy special glasses and pay for special cutlery, which means not everyone can do this. Even now, half of the hotels are still closed… people who have been closed for two or three years are not going to be too interested in Travel Life. They’ll feed their family first. Where are they going to get the money?”

In Hammamet, as in resorts across Europe, every job lost reaches beyond the individual to the families and communities those wage packets help support. Many of those working in tourism, one of Tunisia’s largest industries, have already given up on lives and futures in North Africa and left for Europe. Others have fallen back upon the generosity of extended families to help them through recent years.  

Looking out from the shop, Farid Champi recalls relying upon his family to feed him during the pandemic, before leaving home every day to open a shop that no one would visit. His home town, a small village neighbouring Hammamet, he says, is empty, “Everyone has gone.” For Farid, as for many still eking out a living in Hammamet’s tourist resorts, environmental concerns are a distant worry.  

He points to a spot further down the beach, in full view of the sprawling white fronted hotels that look out across the empty boulevard on to the clear azure sea beyond. “Last month, they took a boat from there,” he says, pointing to a spot on the distant sand, describing how a boat was launched from the beachfront, joining the thousands of other predominantly young Tunisians who, driven by unemployment, hopelessness and the pandemic, left to seek out new lives in Europe. 

For many of those left behind in Tunisia, still clinging to fragile work in the hotels, bars and beaches along Tunisia’s Mediterranean coast, tourism isn’t just a week in the sun. It can be the difference between eating and going hungry.   

Despite this, few argue that tourists and tourism face a binary choice between travel and the environment. Before the pandemic hit, environmental auditors, such as Travel Life, had over 1,000 certified hotels on their books. They now concede that it will take them till later this year or next to recover the ground lost to the pandemic, as travel restrictions ease and hotels reopen.

Their focus is on individual hotels, in the hope that improvements in one will mitigate the overall environmental impact of the wider resort. “We hope that as more hotels work with us, this will have a cumulative impact on improving the impact of the accommodation sector,’ Carolyn Wincer, the company’s commercial director, said by email.

Travel Life said they had received sporadic support from some foreign governments. “We are starting, just in the last six months, to see a shift here with some overseas governments considering making certification mandatory. We have had no contact with the UK government so far,” Ms Wincer wrote. 

“At a local level there is lots of pollution in the resorts,” said Professor Andrew Holden, a specialist in tourism and the environment at Goldsmiths University in London. “Obviously, there’s the impact of air travel, but there’s also the increased strain on the resort town’s resources,” he said. 

During the summer months, the population of a resort town can soar to 20 times its original size. Hotels and guesthouses strain under the weight of incoming tourists, with additional pressure placed on towns’ waste management systems, often conceived of long before the explosion in hospitality transformed their coastlines, co-opting natural farmland and vastly increasing the consumption of resources and water in a time of climate change and rising temperatures. 

“Just think about the water,” Professor Holden said. “Several studies have shown that tourists consume two and a half to three times more water than local residents. Add to that the pressure from golf courses and the changes in land use and you have a problem. In addition, we have local pollution from increased volumes in traffic and solid waste entering the sea water.”

In Hammamet, the evidence is unavoidable. Plastic bottles, crisp packets and ubiquitous cigarette butts pock-mark the miles of open sand along the beachfront. In the marina, shoals of tiny fish crowd round discarded soda bottles. It’s hardly unique to Tunisia. It’s an image replicated across Europe’s resorts.  

A survey of the Mediterranean islands last year reported that around 80% of marine debris in the sea had its roots in tourism. According to the same study, around 330 items of rubbish could be found upon every 1,000 square metres of beach – 5.7 times more than in low season. Some time earlier, a further study by the UN reported that around 730 tonnes of plastic waste entered the Mediterranean every day, not all from tourism but, together, combining to transform the pristine coastlines of the tourist brochures into some of the most polluted on Earth. 

While individual hotels and chains bear principal responsibility for that pollution, individual tourists also play their part. “People enter this strange kind of dissonance, when they go on holiday,” Professor Holden continued, “They assume different standards than they would at home, adopting different behaviour and thinking more about what they can consume, with little thought of its environmental impact.”  

“No one begrudges anyone a holiday,” Professor Holden continued. “Tourism’s great. Equally, no one’s dismissing the vital role it plays in supporting sometimes struggling economies and individual jobs. We just need it to be re-conceptualised. That is, why can’t it be more sustainable? It can be frustrating, I know. Right now, governments are far more concerned with recovering from the pandemic and regenerating their economies. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, a sustainable balance has to be found between the two,” he said. 

The full furnace blast of Europe’s tourism season has yet to be felt. However, bookings are increasing in tandem with reports of chaos within the airlines and airports. Tui, one of the world’s leading providers of package holidays, has said it is expecting 2022 bookings to rival pre-pandemic numbers, with reservations already at 85% of 2019 levels. As bookings rise, airports across Europe are struggling to cope with the influx of tourists denied their annual fix of Vitamin D. Flights are being cancelled and ticket prices are rising in the rush to grab two weeks of rest and relaxation at the continent’s coastal oases, with the environment bracing for their impact. 

The airlines themselves are huge contributors to the environmental consequences of European tourism. Despite laying off some four million workers worldwide, “Pandemic subsidies and tax cuts have made a big difference to the airlines’ ability to offer cheap flights,” Herwig Schuster of Greenpeace said of the choices facing hard-pressed tourists, squeezed by rising domestic costs, “Add to that the lower cost of living in countries such as Turkey, Spain and Greece and you can see how the cost of living crisis could be fuelling package tourism.” 

The impact of soaring CO2 levels is already affecting communities, according to Schuster. Firefighters in Spain and Germany are struggling to contain forest fires directly linked to climate change, as an abnormal heatwave smothers much of western Europe. Droughts, once rare, have become commonplace. Last year, wildfires raged across southern Europe, leading to the dramatic evacuation of Evia, Greece’s second largest island, as bone-dry conditions allied with climate change to produce carnage. In between dry spells, floods and extreme weather also threaten local communities. 

Nevertheless, pre-pandemic tourist numbers remain a distant prospect, as Europe continues to struggle with its own economic form of long Covid. Most analysts estimate recovery may take anywhere up to five years. In the meantime, whether Europe’s tourism industry has the will, or the finances, to change its relationship with the environment remains to be seen.  

All of this seems very distant from the beachfront at Hammamet. For shop workers like Aziz Mansouri, still reeling after more than two years without a salary, five years is an eternity. Staring out at the almost deserted boulevard, he recalls, “Many people from all over the world were here. I hope this year they will come back. If they don’t come back, I don’t know if we will continue,” he says, “Things were bad. Everything was closed. I didn’t receive any payment in the pandemic. I ate with my sisters, my brothers, my cousins. If tourism comes back, fewer people will leave. There isn’t anything else to do. There aren’t any other jobs.”

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