People dance at the electronic music festival Les Dunes Electroniques at Ong Jmel, near the town of Nefta in western Tunisia on November 16. (Amine Landoulsi/AFP via Getty Images)

A Return to Normalcy at Tunisia’s Les Dunes Electroniques Music Festival

The Star Wars-themed event is one indicator that tourism is recovering

For the first time in four years, Tunisia’s desert is alive with the sound of electronic music at Tunisia’s Les Dunes Electroniques music festival. Many of the 6,000 attendees showed up in Darth Vader and other Star Wars-themed costumes for the event at Ong Jmal in Nefta, Tunisia: the filming location for various scenes in the iconic movie.

Matthieu Corosine of the Nice-based Panda Events and co-founder of the festival told The Media Line, “From day one, it was the Star Wars movie set in the middle of the desert because it’s like the DNA of the festival, [it was what] attracted some attention.”

The grand-scale two-day festival started November 18 and featured headliners such as Luciano and Appolonia, and costs about €600,000 ($660,000) to put on.

According to Corosine, Tunisia is a hotspot for electronic music. “You can ask any young person in Tunis about the top 30 on Resident Advisor [an electronic music magazine] and they know it off the top of their head. It’s crazy,” he said.

The Dunes Electronic festival is a sign that Tunisia’s tourism industry is roaring back five years after the sector was devastated by two Islamic State perpetrated attacks at Tunis’s Bardo Museum and a Sousse beach in 2015. The festival, which premiered in 2014, was stopped as a result of such acts.

Terrorism exacerbated Tunisia’s tourism woes, which had declined since the Arab Spring, a series of uprisings across the Arab world against autocratic rulers.

Last year, Tunisia finally exceeded the number of visitors received since before the Arab Spring in 2010 in which Tunisia emerged as the sole country to become a democracy. This is in part due to a downturn in the violence.

“The security situation has improved greatly compared to the past two years. It’s still a major issue for Tunisia,” Amel Boubekeur, visiting fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR), told The Media Line.

A spokesperson at the Tunisian National Tourist Office, United Kingdom & Ireland told The Media Line: “Since the 2015 attacks the whole mindset to deal with security and safety has changed,” the representative said. “Tunisia has succeeded to build strong ties with Western powers such as US, UK, Germany and France to tackle this threat. Tunisia has benefited from their experience and technology to enhance the security around soft targets … and better border management. As a result, no tourist in Tunisia to date has been attacked on terror basis.”

The Tunisian government’s efforts reassured Corosine that it was safe to come back.

“We decided to pull the festival after the 2015 attacks and eventually at the end of 2018, we got a call from the current minister of tourism and he told us the country was ready for us to come back,” he said. “At first, we wanted some guarantees that the security was going to be ensured for us, so we worked very closely with the ministers in charge of the security authorities.”

“We had,” he continued, “a massive security set up going from 45 kilometers [28 miles] away from the festival to the festival and there were hundreds of national guard and military [personnel] securing the area.”

Tourism is an important of Tunisia’s fiscal landscape, as it accounts for nearly eight percent of Tunisia’s gross domestic product. From January through June, Tunisia’s tourism industry generated $692 million, up 42.5% from the same time frame in 2018 according to government figures.

According to the Department of Commerce’s International Trade Commission, approximately 8 million tourists visited Tunisia in 2018, up over 17% from the year before.

Corosine explained that his company did a financial impact study in 2015 and found that the festival has brought in 6 million dinars ($2.1 million) for the local economy.  He expects the festival to generate the same amount this year.

A boost in visitors is welcome news for Tunisia’s struggling economy. General unemployment is around 15 percent, and for young people, the situation is even worse. According to statistics from the World Bank, Tunisia’s unemployment rate in 2019 for ages 15 to 24 is 34.8%. The world average in 2019 for this demographic is approximately 12.77%.

The festival’s location in southern Tunisia has been particularly hard hit by the nation’s economic woes. The country’s wealth gap is divided on geographic lines, which is an issue the Tunisian government has yet to address.

“The government hasn’t been able to deliver any traditional economic promises.” ECFR’s Boubekeur said. “The same lines exist between the richer north and coastal cities and the rest of the country, particularly the interior regions.”

The government’s inaction on the economy also translates into less than complete action on security.

“The government doesn’t address the economic problems that is at the roots of radicalization and security problems,” Boubekeur said. “It needs to be addressed nationally and locally by Tunisians.”

This is an issue that will need to be taken up the new government which has yet to be formed. On Friday, the country’s new president Kais Saied selected Habib Jemli as his pick for prime minister. Jemli has 60 days to form the next government.

Ultimately, Corosine hopes Les Dunes Electronique will improve how the rest of the world perceives the country. “I think Tunisia has experienced a very dark period of time since the last terrorist attacks and we want the festival to have an impact on the image of the country because it is a beautiful country with beautiful people and we want to show the world, in collaboration with the government, that it is safe to come here and party in Tunisia.”

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