This Tunisian resort balances holidays with heritage and sophistication. Nick Redmayne explores
An inviting mix of easy Mediterranean resort and exotic North African allure has long been Tunisia’s key selling point.
However, on the edge of the Gulf of Hammamet, some 84 miles south of Tunis on the country’s east coast, Sousse’s university-town combination of sophisticated French-style chic and Arab hospitality balances relaxation with intriguing diversion.
It’s a holiday destination not defined by tourism alone. If stuffed toy camels are what you’re after Sousse will provide, but if you arrived on an Airbus there’s a good chance part of the avionics were stamped ‘Made in Sousse’.
At the forefront of the Arab world’s ‘awakening’, Tunisia has perhaps progressed the furthest since its 2011 revolution. Tourism – which suffered a body blow amid the uncertainty – has made a remarkable recovery.
Last year, UK visitor numbers were up 45% on 2011 and approaching 2010’s high of 338,737. Wahida Jaiet, director UK and Ireland, Tunisian National Tourist Office, says: “We aim to return to our record-breaking 2010 visitor figure next year. We’ll also be working closely with the trade and introducing interactive training programmes to target niche markets in 2013.”
SEE: AUTHENTIC TUNISIA
From a distance, Sousse’s most obvious attraction is its expanse of sandy beach, stretching from near the Medina to the designer resort of Port El Kantaoui seven miles along the coast.
The town’s public beach of Boujafar can become pretty crowded in high season, but further out many hotels have their own dedicated, quieter section of sand. That said, Sousse is far from a one-dimensional beach flop.
Gemma Carol, Cosmos Holidays’ product manager, says: “Sousse is ideal for the over-50s market wanting to experience the history and culture of a destination with a high standard of hotel facilities and service.
“The resort is increasing in popularity with its gorgeous sandy beach and resort centre offering a thriving port, monastery, fortresses, souks, pavement cafes and restaurants.”
Indeed, those climbing the bastions of the fortified ninth-century Ribat are rewarded by an unimpeded panorama, across a hotchpotch of flat roofs inland and beyond the port towards the Mediterranean.
The town’s Unesco-designated Medina may seem to have sold its soul, but penetrate through the veneer of tat shops and the market’s alleyways, timeless hole-in-the-wall emporia and wandering vendors are pulsing as vigorously as ever.
In the past hustlers were an annoyance, but in the ‘new’ Tunisia even they have become more democratic – a firm “non merci” will usually suffice.
When the shops are shut, the sun has set and it’s too dark to swim, the town still holds forth in a gentle Tunisian way.
Peter Kirk, managing director of Tunisia First, says: “There has been a trend in recent years for travellers to look at Sousse as opposed to the more popular purpose-built resort of Port El Kantaoui.
“Sousse has become quite trendy of late with more restaurants, music bars and nightclubs having opened.”
STAY: NEW HOTELS AND INCLUSIVE PACKAGES
Accommodation caters to most budgets, from modest two-star auberges to luxury five-star resorts via an increasing number of first class four-star hotels.
All-inclusive accommodation is a popular option for the budget conscious; Cosmos Holidays markets the four-diamond-rated Marhaba Royal Salem hotel to families and couples on this basis.
This property, the three-star Dream Beach Hotel and the five-star Mövenpick Resort & Marine Spa are all new for Just Sunshine this year. The last is Sousse’s top hotel, located just out of the centre but still connected to street life.
The hotel’s uncompromising architecture will have both fans and detractors, but its impeccable service and high standard of accommodation is rivalled only by the quality of cuisine served across the Mövenpick’s five restaurants.
The four-star all-inclusive Thalassa Sousse Hotel, boasting a new 15-slide water park, is an addition to Thomas Cook’s Aquamania range.
Mark Hall, head of product for Thomson and First Choice, says: “Sousse is proving very popular so we have increased capacity for summer 2013. We’ve added the exclusive Thomson Couples Sousse and the First Choice El Ksar Resort & Thalasso to our programme.”
New hotels are on the way too – The Park Inn by Radisson Sousse is due to open its doors in autumn, another property investing heavily in thalasso and spa facilities.
SELL: PRICE AND PROXIMITY
Sousse’s depth as a destination sets it apart from dedicated holiday resorts and for many, staying in a city not solely designed around tourism means they’ve spent time in Tunisia and not just at a sandy beach that could have been anywhere.
Excursions to historical sites such as Carthage (pictured above), the famous coliseum at El Djem, a location used in the making of Gladiator, and the Holy City of Kairouan are easily achieved.
Further afield it’s a fair bet that at some point clients might want to contrast sandy beach with sandy desert. Tunisia First offers two-day Sahara desert safari add-ons, while longer treks with camels can be arranged through specialist operators such as Exodus.
With value for money particularly important to families, its position outside the eurozone is another strong selling point for Tunisia. Gemma Carroll reports: “Prices are currently very reasonable and we are on par with other family-orientated short-haul destinations such as Antalya in Turkey and Tenerife.”
Though Tunisian weather varies widely, Sousse winters are generally mild and bright, even January days often reaching 16C. Summer temperatures hit a toasty 34C but are moderated by sea breezes. Rainfall is highest from October to May, though it’s nothing compared to home.
It’s easy to forget that Africa’s north coast is the Mediterranean’s southern shore. Sousse is around two-and-a-half hours’ flying time. At 84 miles south of Tunis, 12 miles from Monastir and 25 miles from the relatively new gateway of Enfidha, airport transfers are slick.
For 2013, regional departures have also increased with Thomas Cook, which serves Tunisia from 14 UK airports, including new routes from Aberdeen, Belfast, Doncaster, Norwich and Humberside.
Thomson and First Choice too will operate new summer flights to Enfidha from Exeter, Edinburgh, Leeds Bradford and Norwich. Just Sunshine has added Newcastle and Glasgow to its existing departure points of Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester.
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