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What Is Wrong In This Picture? Libyan exiles save Tunisia's tourist haven of Djerba

Among the tens of thousands of Libyans who have taken refuge in neighbouring Tunisia in the past six months to wait

'Very good clients'

Local Tunisian entrepreneurs say rich Libyans have made up for loss of Europeans tourism.


By Kaouther Larbi – DJERBA, Tunisia

 out the worst back home, the richest are saving the tourist haven of Djerba.

The usual bookings from Europe to this island resort known for stunning beaches and sunsets dropped off after Tunisia's own uprising in January. That revolt not only led to the collapse of president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali's dictatorship but touched off the "Arab Spring" movement against repressive regimes, which hit Libya in February.

Now, the Libyans have made up for the loss of Europeans and other Westerners, according to local entrepreneurs.

"The misfortune of some brings good luck to others," quipped taxi driver Jamel.

Though 2011 has already been declared the worst year yet for Tunisian tourism -- a sector that accounts for seven percent of the gross domestic product and employs 400,000 people in this North African state -- Djerba has been rescued by wealthy refugees.

Several thousand Libyan refugees have settled on this island of 139,000 residents right off Tunisia's coast, waiting for the complete fall of Moamer Gathafi's regime and greater stability before they decide to return under the new rebel leadership in Tripoli.

Big cars with Libyan licence plates fill many of the parking places. Their owners bide time in the restaurants, cafes, shops and apartments for rent close to the sea.

"Without them, my income would have been close to nothing," acknowledged Cherif, 39, a grocer in Midoun.

"Since the uprising against the Libyan regime, we have recorded a turnover of 100,000 dinars (51,000 euros / 72,000 dollars) per day, which is an increase of 10 percent over the year 2010," said Adel Khlifi, the deputy director of a large supermarket at Houmet Souk, the main town on the island.

Khlifi said that the Libyans are "very good clients" who buy a lot of food products. "The cost of their purchases are more than 120 dinars by day," Khlifi added.

"It's true that we miss the foreign currency income (brought in by European tourists), but we cannot deny that we have been saved by our Libyan brothers," said Salem, 49, who runs a restaurant in Djerba's tourist zone and has for the past two months served meals to about 50 Libyans a day.

"At least we are not going bust this year," added Mohamed, a manager in a trendy cafe in Midoun.

Legend holds that Djerba, ironically, was the land of the Lotus Eaters described in Homer's Greek epic "The Odyssey", where eating the local fruit made Ulysses' men not care about returning home.

While the Libyans are unlikely to forget their own homecoming, Mohamed and others dependent on the tourist trade try to make their stay a bit easier.

"Spoil them as they deserve," he urged his waiters on a recent evening as he welcomed the first customers with a big smile.

"They're a long way from home, their country is at war. They need us to boost their morale. They certainly deserve that in light of what they spend," Mohamed said.

In some hotels, a special price for Libyans has been posted up in the reception, no higher than 60 dinars (about 30 euros, 42 dollars) including full board.

"This is a symbolic price for these people who are living in a difficult situation. We must help them during this period," said Adbelwahab Majoul, the manager of a four-star hotel.

The Libyan VIPs stay in five-star hotels, which have kept their high prices. These palatial buildings in recent months took in officials of the Gathafi regime and representatives of the Libyan rebels for secret talks.

However, not all agree with Mohamed and the presence of the Libyans has upset some Djerba residents, who are waiting impatiently for their guests from across the border to leave.

"Since the Libyans arrived, the price of vegetables and fruit has almost doubled," complained Ali, a civil servant. "You can queue for an hour to buy water and milk, since there are so many Libyans in our shops."




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