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Who would write a travel guidebook in a pandemic? Lockdown in Tunisia

For Oscar Scafidi, the Bradt Guide to Tunisia has been no easy feat.

On 5 January, I stepped off a Qatar Airways flight into Tunis-Carthage International Airport having just spent the festive season in Namibia with my partner Stephanie, exploring the wildlife-rich Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Now it was time to head back to our home in Tunis. Little did I know that this was the last flight I would take in 2020.

It’s been quite the year to be a travel writer.

Spring: lockdown

At the time of our return to Tunis, there were a few news stories about a mysterious virus spreading in Wuhan, China. But it was not front-page news, and I barely gave it a second thought as I began my new project for the year: writing the first ever Bradt Guide to Tunisia and filming the whole process for my YouTube channel, Scafidi Travels

For the first two months, it was business as usual. I jumped in a 4×4 and embarked on my first research expedition: a 1,200km road trip to the south to explore the desert oases of Douz and Tozeur and the amazing salt lake at Chott-el-Djerid. But that freedom of movement soon to came to an end, as it did for hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

Tunisia’s first Covid-19 case was detected on 2 March. The country’s airspace was closed on 17 March, and five days later we entered a full 24/7 lockdown. I had been living in Tunisia since August 2019, but now I was well and truly stuck, with little hope of getting much work done on the guidebook. Worse still, Stephanie found herself stranded over 9,000km away in Panama, having been on a birdwatching holiday with her father when lockdown hit. We would not see each other for the next 11 weeks.

Like many people, I discovered the joys of group Zoom calls with family and friends, finally reading that backlog of Kindle books and eating far too much food. One of my neighbours, a diplomat from a neighbouring country, turned his apartment into an underground nightclub. I would spend the weekend evenings playing online poker with my friends, noise-cancelling headphones blocking out the sounds of 80s synth-pop hits drifting up the stairwell. But alas, no guidebook research.

A summer of exploration

Tunisia’s restrictions lasted until 4 May, although it was not until a month later that life was ostensibly back to normal. The country’s harsh but rapid lockdown seemed to have been effective: as of June, there had been only 47 recorded Covid-19 deaths.

There followed one of the most surreal but incredible summers I have ever experienced. Businesses were open again and desperate for customers, but Tunisian airspace did not reopen to tourists until 27 June. So for three and a half weeks, those of us already in Tunisia had the country all to ourselves. 

We spent the summer enjoying heavily discounted hotel rooms as we explored the south and east of the country. La Badira in Hammamet was a particular favourite, a luxury adults-only hotel on Tunisia’s beautiful Mediterranean coastline.

We also relocated to the southern island of Djerba for a few weeks, finding a large Airbnb villa in the ancient Jewish quarter of Houmt Souk. Normally packed with tourists at this time of year, we found the hotels and restaurants largely empty. It was a bittersweet experience: great to have everything to ourselves, but also quite eerie. Talking to the vendors in the souk, many of whom spoke French, German and Italian, we learned just how reliant the local economy was on tourism, and what a massive impact the closure of airspace had on Djerba.

One reason the island is so popular with Europeans is that it has a natural bay on the north coast that is one of the best places in the world to learn to kitesurf. Normally when the wind is good, you will find up to 50 kitesurfers zooming up and down the shallow waters just off the coast, but my friend Jake and I were often the only ones there. It was a great environment to learn in, although despite all the space I still found a way to crash into my poor instructor Dhia!

Even after Tunisian airspace reopened on 27 June, not many tourists arrived. We bumped into a few French package holidaymakers in some of the all-inclusive resorts around Hammamet and Korba, but tourists did not return in the numbers required to save the season, and before long it was September.

Autumn: all about archaeology

When the summer holidays were over, many of my friends returned to work in Tunis. I jumped in my 4×4 and started exploring the west of the country, specifically the governorates of Jendouba, Siliana, Kef and Béja.

This is a poorer, more rural part of Tunisia that doesn’t attract nearly as many tourists as the more developed coastal areas to the east of the capital. This is something I am hoping to change with the new guidebook, as this part of the country has a lot to offer adventurous tourists.

If you are interested in archaeology, then this is a particularly impressive place to explore. It is home to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Dougga, as well as a number of other impressively preserved archaeological sites such as Bulla Regia, Chemtou and Mactaris. I spent the autumn months zooming down dirt tracks and across seemingly random fields in search of every archaeological site marked on my Michelin 744 national map of Tunisia. There were a lot of confused looks from farmers and goat herders when I appeared over the horizon with my GoPro, asking where the Roman arch or Numidian shrine was located!

Even if you are not into archaeology, the west of the country also boasts a handful of natural wonders – and I took full advantage of having the sites to myself. Arguably the most impressive of these was Jugurtha’s Table, a 600m-high mesa towering over the surrounding farmland. It served as the fortress hideout of an ancient Numidian king during his guerrilla war against Roman occupation, and can be climbed by a set of stairs carved into the rockface. From the top, you can see as far away as Algeria!

I also got to enjoy the hot springs at Hammam Mellegue, which have been in continuous use for 2,000 years! This really is the lesser-discovered part of Tunisia, and affords amazing opportunities for hiking, climbing and wild camping. 

Winter: the second wave

As with many other countries, Covid-19 cases in Tunisia began to rise quickly after the restrictions were lifted. By 8 October the government had put in place a curfew in the capital city, which was soon extended across the whole county and remains in place today. Travel between Tunisia’s governorates has also been banned, once again interrupting the guidebook research process.

However, all is not lost. Despite the restrictions, I’ve still managed to do bits of research, mainly sailing across the Gulf of Tunis to see the dolphins. The weather here remains warm enough to swim, even in November, so we have jumped on this boat many times since the travel ban was enforced.   

2021: publishing a guidebook?

There is still much research that needs to be done before the Bradt Guide to Tunisia is ready. I intend to go camel trekking in the dunes down south, visit the nature reserves on Tunisia’s more remote islands, hunt down all the Star Wars filming locations in the country, surf the waves over in Tabarka and answer the important question: which is Tunisia’s best beach?

Of Tunisia’s eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, so far I have only been to five, and one of those (Ichkeul National Park) was closed due to Covid-19! 

There are slivers of hope that I will be able to do these things sooner rather than later, and not just because of the potential vaccines. On 16 November, the Tunisian government replaced their traffic-light entry system with a blanket seven-day quarantine requirement, meaning that nobody is banned from flying in any more, regardless of their place of residency. There is also talk of extending the opening hours of restaurants and other businesses from 4pm to 7pm. Hopefully, by mid-2021, things will return to normal.

As you might expect, writing a travel guide during a pandemic is not an easy task. But despite the shuttered businesses, I have seen great resilience in the Tunisian tourism sector, which has already weathered the dual downturns of the Tunisian Revolution (2010-11) and the Sousse attacks (2015). I have met hoteliers, young entrepreneurs, NGO workers and government employees who are all passionate about building a more inclusive, more sustainable tourism model for Tunisia than the package-beach-holiday holidays of the past.

There is massive tourism potential across this great country. I am very excited to be writing the Bradt Guide to Tunisia, and hope that upon publication, it helps Tunisia to realise this great potential.