Tunisian tourism-dependent village Chenini faces desperate uncertainty despite no cases of Covid

Despite no case of Covid-19, the small Amazigh village of Chenini is facing the massive economic consequences of the pandemic. But while the coronavirus is exceptionally destructive, in Chenini it looks like the culmination of years of economic decline.

“You know, life is different here. If you don’t work, you don’t eat, ”explains Tarek, 28, who works as a tourist guide in the small village of Chenini, in southern Tunisia. After spending three years studying economic management in the larger coastal town of Sfax, he returned inland to his native village to become a tourist guide, as he could not find a job with his diploma.

Chenini, like most of the small villages in the region, has only a few inhabitants left after decades of urbanization. Like Tarek, the few hundred who remain depend almost entirely on the income of tourists – foreign and national – who come to the village to learn more about the region’s indigenous Amazigh past, olive growing and traditional troglodytes.

However, even though no positive cases have been detected in the village since the start of the pandemic, the effect of Covid-19 on tourism is disastrous.

In 2020, Tunisia experienced a 65% drop in tourism receipts compared to the previous year, and a 78% drop in the number of visitors, corresponding to a contraction of around 7% of the entire economy of the country.

“The pandemic is difficult on the village and especially on the tourist guides”, says Dr. Habib Belhedi, dentist in Tataouine, capital of the region and manager of the only tourist accommodation in Chenini, the Residence Kenza-Chenini. The new Arabic.

“The village has 15 tour guides, and they were working great before March 2020. But now it has gotten worse. Chenini in his best days might have had thousands of visitors, but not anymore.

Indeed, in 2020, Tunisia experienced a 65% drop in tourism receipts compared to the previous year, and a 78% drop in the number of visitors, corresponding to a contraction of around 7% of the total. of the country’s economy. And it seems that small villages like Chenini are hit the hardest by the decline in tourism – not just in Tunisia, but in small tourism dependent towns around the world, like Sary-Mogol in Kyrgyzstan and the Peruvian Andes.

This region of Tunisia has been arid for centuries [Getty]

The traditional ways of the village

Chenini is a village of a few hundred inhabitants. 2014 census figures from the Tunisian National Institute of Statistics put Chenini’s population at 404 – a drop from 554 in 2004, and a drop that locals say has not slowed since the census.

The village is built in levels on the hills, in the shape of a horseshoe; this is the traditional way of optimally using the wind and keeping the village livable in the summer when temperatures often reach 40 degrees Celsius.

By now, most of the upper levels have been abandoned, and the cave houses that people once lived in are open for exploration. Locals still live in the lower levels, while the upper levels offer the best views and arguably the greatest potential to convert the caves into bed and breakfasts and accommodate the growing interest in ecotourism that Chenini lacks due to the pandemic.

The village is one of the few places in Tunisia where some still speak the local Amazigh dialect as their main language. The Amazighs – often referred to as Berbers – are an indigenous ethnic group from North and West Africa who are widely considered to be the original inhabitants of the region. Many Tunisians are proud of their Amazigh heritage today, even though very few speak the language.

The village is built in levels on the hills, in the shape of a horseshoe; this is the traditional way of optimally using the wind and keeping the village livable in summer

Perhaps because of the well-known Tuaregs – a traditionally nomadic Amazigh ethnic confederation known for their quaint indigo-colored clothing – people often think of Amazighs as nomads. While some in Chenini, like Tarek, claim a Tuareg heritage, Chenini and the other Amazigh villages in the region are traditionally sedentary, relying on olive growing and olive oil production to survive, and wine presses in the region. traditional olives are still found in the village.

About eight kilometers from Chenini are the olive groves of the region. At present, the fields seem mostly empty with only a few olive trees still standing on each.

“Years ago, the fields were full of olive trees,” says Tarek, who picked olives in the fields as a child. “But now only the big and old trees remain because of their hardiness. Planting new trees is almost impossible with dry conditions.

When asked if there were noticeably more trees in the fields as a child, Tarek exclaimed, “Of course! Much more ”, as if explaining themselves.

This region of Tunisia has been arid for centuries – in fact locals describe it as the last line of defense between Tunisia and the Sahara Desert. To adapt to the aridity, the villagers have developed a water harvesting system known as Jessour, which traps sparse rains and allows maximum use by olive trees.

However, with ‘unusually dry conditions [having] has prevailed since the 1980s ”, the role of agriculture has gradually weakened and most of the inhabitants have either left Chenini or found jobs in tourism locally. And with climate change, everyone in the village knows that farming will never again be a sustainable way of life.

“Here, there is no future for young people. They all have college degrees now, and they want to use them, ”says Belhedi.

Ahmed – a young resident of Chenini – works at Residence Kenza-Chenini with several of his brothers and sisters. He is an exception: despite several proposals, he decided to stay in Chenini for his family. He works at the reception of the residence when new guests arrive.

Nowadays, however, it is most often found sitting at various places on the hillside in the village, smoking a cigarette and waiting for work to arrive.

Mahmoud, 31, owner of one of the village’s two souvenir shops, spends his days watching TV and drinking Turkish coffee with Tarek in his shop, yelling at the few tourists, mostly Tunisians, who pass by. over there. Life is slow and boring these days, he argues, once again thanking God that Covid-19 has not spread to the village.

Chenini is a village of a few hundred inhabitants [Getty]

A long-term crisis

“El gabi gabi system, el power gabi gabi” bursts out of both Tarek’s car radio and vocal cords as he travels through the windy hillside roads outside of Chenini.

The song is Gabi Gabi from 2015, by the Tunisian singer Kafon who accuses both the old and the new power in Tunisia of being “Gabi” – slang for ugly. Perhaps this illustrates that the dire economic situation created by the pandemic looks less like a sudden disaster and more like the culmination of years of economic decline.

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“Fifteen years ago, I went to the Tataouine market with five dinars, and I brought back two huge bags of groceries,” says Tarek. “Now I take 50 dinars and get almost nothing. “

Belhedi argues that the biggest long-term obstacle to the village’s tourism and economic development lies in what he calls “the disease of Tunisia” – corruption.

“The hardest thing in Tunisia is to get government papers. Building a cave out of hard rock is difficult, but getting permission from the government is even more difficult, ”he explains, unless one is prepared to grease the wheels.

Belhedi manages its tourist accommodation, Residence Kenza-Chenini, in the traditional caves of the village. It makes visitors stay in restored troglodyte caves, as they are called, learning about how the city’s Amazigh inhabitants lived in the past. The caves do not have air conditioning – the natural walls keep them warm in winter and cool in summer – but are equipped with running water and electricity.

Belhedi and a few of his friends made this possible from scratch without the help of the municipality in laying water pipes. In fact, Belhedi, who refused to pay a supplement to the local authorities under the table for his accommodation to be authorized – which is required by Tunisian law – had tests carried out by a university in Sfax on the natural material of the walls. of the cave to prove to local authorities that it was not just as strong as the reinforced concrete they requested, but more solid.

The 74-year-old dentist also ran the Earth Memory Museum in the village, but it has not been open for 10 years due to difficulty obtaining permissions. Likewise, Belhedi is working on approving a zip line and observatory in the village – projects currently stuck in paperwork. The Kenza-Chenini Residence has been facing the same problems for years, but it was finally approved.

Read also: A decade later, the revolutionary Tunisian demand for economic justice remains unsatisfied

“Now all they ask is a daily list of our guests that they can send to Tunis to make it look like they’re doing something,” Belhedi explains. “I have often suggested that Tarek and the other guides open their own guesthouses for tourists, but they always lose interest when they hear about administrative obstacles.”

With a lack of economic development opportunities and the added burden of a pandemic, there are fears that the few residents who remain in Chenini will be forced to leave.

“We are especially afraid that all the young people will take to the streets and leave the village,” Belhedi explains.

“In Tataouine, Sfax and Tunis? request The new Arabic.

“No, no, going is not dangerous. We are afraid that they will go to Zarzis to get on a boat and go to Italy. Every time I come here, people tell me: if the pandemic continues for another year or two, I will go to Europe.

Jakob Plaschke is a freelance journalist and master’s student at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.

Follow him on Twitter: @jakobplaschke

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