TUNIS Tunisia expects a record high 7 million tourists to visit this year as the country that inspired the Arab Spring revolts enjoys political stability for the first time since the uprising three years ago, the tourism minister said.
After a crisis last year brought on by the killing of two opposition leaders, Tunisia has adopted a new constitution and a ruling Islamist party has stepped down to allow a caretaker government to take over until elections later this year.
Tunisia's new charter and its compromise to reach the final steps to full democracy have been praised as a model in a region still widely unstable since popular revolts in 2011 that ousted long-standing rulers in Egypt, Yemen and Libya.
"I tell Western tourists, come to Tunisia, the first democracy in the Arab world, to share this historic moment and support a democratic transition and also enjoy its sun, beaches, desert and culture," tourism minister Amel Karboul told Reuters in an interview in her office.
"If everything goes well, our forecasts indicate that we could receive 7 million tourists in 2014."
The small North African country, looking for its economy to stabilize from the turmoil since the 2011 uprising, relies heavily on European tourism to its Mediterranean beaches. Tourism accounts for 8 percent of gross domestic product.
The threat of Islamist militant attacks also casts a shadow over the country's tourism industry. A suicide bomber killed himself on a popular beach resort at the end of last year - the first such attack in a decade.
In 2010, a few months before the revolution that toppled former president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia received 6.9 million tourists. But visitors fell to 6 million in 2012 due to political instability.
Karboul, who worked in international companies in London and Berlin and South Africa before taking up her post, said the government was concerned about potential militant violence hurting tourism.
But she said the sector, which employs 500,000 people in Tunisia, hopes to attract more German, British and Russian tourists, as well as restoring its traditionally strong market in travelers from its former colonial ruler France.
"It is true we do have security incidents here," the minister said. "But security is getting better in the country, that is positive for us."
Karboul said Tunisia was working to diversify tourism services such as desert tourism and support cultural tourism though developing special events.
Last week, more than 12,000 tourists flocked to the Tunisian Sahara for a music festival in the town of Tozeur.
"These events are good for tourism and the image of new Tunisia, but there are many historical sites that we're working on to support cultural tourism," she said.
She said the 50th Session of the country's large Carthage Festival in July was expected to draw international stars including Colombian pop singer Shakira.
Tourism was hit after the uprising against Ben Ali, and the crisis that erupted over the last year when protests broke out against the ruling Islamist party Ennahda. Secular opponents accused them of being lenient on Islamist militants.
Since the end of the year, political stability has returned to Tunisia and a caretaker government filled with technocrats will govern until elections later this year.
Tunisia still faces many challenges, including persistent violence by Islamist militants although Tunisian security forces have cracked down on militants from the banned Islamist movement Ansar al-Sharia, one of the radical groups to emerge after Ben Ali's fall.
Ansar al-Sharia was blamed for inciting the storming of the U.S. embassy in Tunis on September 14, 2012 and has since been listed by Washington as a terrorist organization, with ties to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
(Editing by Patrick Markey and Susan Fenton)