Djerba: Everything but the tourists

Djerba: Everything but the tourists

It’s 7am on a sunny March morning at the palatial Hasdrubal Prestige Thalassa & Spa hotel in Djerba and I have the indoor pool all to myself. Despite the hotel having 219 suites it happens again the following two mornings.

I’m here on a fam trip organised by the Tunisian Tourist Board, who are understandably eager to show our assembled group of agents, tour operators, business people and journalists that Tunisia is open for business as usual. And it’s true. The hotel, its gardens and beach are all spotless, manicured and pristine; the staff are efficient and attentive; and the food is excellent. There just aren’t many visitors to share it with.

Bouncing back

The recent political unrest knocked sales to Tunisia just when it was expecting record visitor numbers in 2011. Now they’re going all out to get things back on track.

So far so good with the hotel, but I wondered whether beyond the Hasdrubal’s entrance it was business as usual in Djerba. Having hired a bike I set off to find out.

The island of Djerba, lying off the country’s east coast, and the closest resort to the Libyan border, covers an area the same size as Saint Lucia and is virtually pancake flat. With excellent roads and little traffic to speak of I cruised the length of the Sidi Mehrez coast road, the main resort area, with ease. Passing the Djerba Golf Course with its undulating greens, I noted couples in matching polo shirts were teeing off at respectable intervals.

Just before a lighthouse, I took a side road down to Sidi Mehrez’s beach. A beauty to be sure, it’s right up there with some of the finest slices of coastline in the Med. A broad stretch of white sand runs for a large chunk of the northeast coast and further than the eye can see. Most of the big hotels back it, claiming a slice of the sand for their guests with coloured sunloungers and parasols marking their territory. 

Pedalling inland past farmhouses and olive groves I reached the pretty little town of Midoun. Here, you instantly see how Djerba contrasts with the mainland Tunisian resorts of Port El Kantaoui and Hammamet Yasmine. While the former are geared towards satisfying holidaymakers’ every need, in Djerba, beyond the hotels, life continues as if tourism never happened.

Ordering a freshly-squeezed orange juice (for just 80p) at a cafe on the edge of the leafy main square, I felt instantly submerged in everyday life. I watched as shoppers carried bags brimming with produce, old men gossiped and children giggled, then went to check out the town.

There are no souvenir or gift shops so I haggled for some firey-hot harissa paste at several open-fronted grocers until I was happy with the price. I popped into a bakery and supermarket and chatted to the proprietors and customers who were genuinely friendly and eager to tell me about the ‘new Tunisia’.

The recent Jasmine Revolution, as it’s known, is considered a blessing rather than a curse by your average Tunisian. With freedom of speech and free enterprise fast becoming a reality, people feel upbeat and positive and at no point in my bike ride did I see any sign of the recent conflict or feel unsafe.

If the future looks bright, Djerba’s Berber past was also colourful, as the exhibits at the Musée de Guellala show. This pleasant stone building and its palm-dotted inner courtyard, where you can take a camel ride or have your name written in Arabic by an artist, reveals the festivals and folk ways of Djerba’s indigenous North African Berbers.

Market traders in Guellala on the island of Djerba, Tunisia

Most intriguing is the tradition that brides stay indoors and gorge on rich food for a month before their wedding. The more plump and pale a bride the more attractive she’s considered – quite a contrast from the sun bed sessions and no-chocolate regime of many British brides-to-be.

The Berbers put Djerba on the map back in Neolithic times thanks to their renowned pottery skills. You can still see their descendants throwing pots at the village of Guellala in the south and purchase a bargain, bowl, cup, ornament or jug. It’s one of the most popular excursions on the island, along with haggling at the souk in Houmt Souk, the island’s main town.

However, relaxing, tanning on the beach and watching the sun rise and set over white-washed houses with onion domes framed by palm trees is what people come here to do. If clients are keen to go into the Sahara, and take city trips to Tunis and Sousse, they would be better off staying in a mainland resort.

Djerba’s strength lies in its laid-back atmosphere and its surprising range of hotels, from the luxurious Hasdrubal Prestige to the characterful Magic Life Penelope Beach, which is a great bet for the cost-conscious. Being further south than the rest of country, Djerba also has a longer summer and milder winter.

What did the agents think?

Jackie Henshall, travel consultant, Vacation World, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire“Without doubt I would recommend Djerba to families looking for a bucket-and-spade holiday at a reasonable cost. I would also switch-sell it with Turkey for those who want to try something new. The food has been excellent and the Hasdrubal Prestige Thalassa & Spa is fabulous. I would especially recommend it to honeymooners.”

Jackie Henshall, travel consultant, Vacation World, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire

Wayne and Alison Evans, directors, Ambassador Travel, Wantage, Oxfordshire“We wanted to see for ourselves that Tunisia feels safe before recommending it to our customers. We’ve been impressed and would switch-sell it with Spain to people on a budget. Djerba offers affordable relaxation.”

Wayne and Alison Evans, directors, Ambassador Travel, Wantage, Oxfordshire

Tony Blakey, national sales manager, Just Sunshine, London “The revolution means sales are down but we’re confident that demand will bounce back. Our April bookings showed signs of that. With this in mind, we’re investing in fams from Manchester and Gatwick for 200 agents. We want agents to see what a great product Tunisia is. Anyone interested in going should get in touch.”

Tony Blakey, national sales manager, Just Sunshine, London

Sample product

Classic Collection Holidays is offering seven nights at Hasdrubal Prestige Thalassa & Spa, Djerba from £1,275 per person this June. The price is based on two adults sharing a junior suite on a bed and breakfast basis and includes flights from Gatwick to Djerba and private transfers.

Book it: classic-collection.co.uk, 0800 008 7288

Just Sunshine has seven nights’ half-board at the three-star Miramar Djerba from £359 including flights from Gatwick, and £379 from Manchester, while 14 nights cost £449 and £469 respectively. Prices are based on two adults sharing and a June 4 departure. Alternatively, seven nights’ all-inclusive at the four-star El Mouradi Djerba Menzel leads in at £389 from Gatwick and £429 from Manchester, also departing June 4.

Book it: justsunshine.com, 0844 756 0056

Thomson has seven nights’ all-inclusive at the 4T Plus Magic Life Penelope Beach Imperial from £389, based on two adults sharing, departing June 2, including return flights and in-resort transfers.

Book it: thomson.co.uk, 0871 231 3235

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