TUNISIA has enjoyed countless column inches thanks to its Hollywood connection - the film scenes of planet Tatooine, in Star Wars: Episode One The Phantom Menace were shot in the Sahara desert near the town of Tozeur.

A constant stream of articles in the national press and popular magazines such as OK! in June and July has undoubtedly raised the country's profile, and kept the Tunisian National Tourist Office busy dealing with increased consumer enquiries.

"We have had a tremendous amount of press coverage, which can only strengthen Tunisia's image. The number of articles mentioning Tunisia has been incredible," said director of the Tunisian National Tourist Office Houssem Ben Azouz.

"In July we had 400 requests for brochures on the south of the country, which is double the number of requests we had in June before the film came out."

To tap into the increasing consumer interest, Panorama, Sunworld and Wigmore Holidays and Travel have all added the film's set near Tozeur to the desert safaris in their Summer Sun brochures.

Panorama tours even stop at the Hotel Sidi Driss, which was used as the home to Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars film. Meanwhile, Thomson and Cosmos offer desert safaris which take in the Troglodyte caves in Matmata nearby, which also featured in the original.

"We have noticed a large increase in the number of bookings for our four-day desert safari which starts operating in September - we have taken over 80 bookings so far," said Panorama advertising and PR manager Michelle Hamilton.

However, operators are not expecting the Star Wars hype to increase the numbers of sun, sea and sand package tourists, which make up the bulk of vistors to the country.

First Choice marketing manager Alex Perry said: "The film has been good publicity, Tunisia has received a lot of attention in the press, but as far as persuading people to go on a package holiday, the effect will be limited. Tourism prompted by films does happen, but it is usually when a film is tied into a specific area like Notting Hill."

Far more likely to boost the number of package tourists is the continuing programme of familiarisation trips and roadshows put on by the tour operators and tourist office.

Targeting independent agents, specialist Wigmore Holidays and Travel plans to take a party of 50 counter clerks for a long weekend in October to the resorts of Hammamet, Sousse and Port El Kantaoui, the most popular resorts for the UK market.

Agents will sample a tour of Sousse's covered markets as well as an excursion to the Roman coliseum at El Djem, 1hr's drive from Sousse.

To promote the southern island of Djerba, the company will invite 50 of its top selling agents on a luxury long weekend to the five-star Royal Garden Palace next March and June.

Cadogan Holidays plans to take 400 agents out to the resorts of Hammamet, Port El Kantaoui, Sousse and Monastir from November to March. The company also plans to take 100 of its top selling agents to the island of Djerba.

Also in the pipeline is a series of 20 roadshows in the south of England, the operator's key catchment area, which the company hopes will attract 2,000 agents.

Managing director Gary David said: "We are also going in-house to agencies to run regular training sessions for over 1,000 counter staff. It is important to keep educating as the level of staff turnover is high.

"We will visit agencies during the winter when things are quiet."

Panorama is planning to take a total of 500 agents out to Hammamet, Port El Kantaoui and Sousse, spread across three trips in October and November.

If agents do not manage to secure a place on any of the operators' trips, they will be in with a chance to take part in the tourist office's "mega educational" this autumn.

Between 400 and 500 staff, split into small groups, will be invited to see the main resorts courtesy of Tunisair.


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