Tourist-reliant Tunisian village Chenini faces uncertain future

Tourist-reliant Tunisian village Chenini faces desperate uncertainty despite zero Covid cases
8 min read
19 May, 2021
Despite no Covid-19 cases, the tiny Amazigh village Chenini faces massive economic consequences from the pandemic. But while coronavirus is exceptionally destructive, in Chenini it feels like the culmination of years of economic decline.
A lone tourist explores what's left of tourist village Chenini, Tunisia [Getty]

“You know, life is different here. If you don’t work, you don’t eat,” explains 28-year-old Tarek who works as a tourist guide in the small village, Chenini, in southern Tunisia. After spending three years pursuing a degree in economic management in the larger coastal city of Sfax, he returned inland to his home village to become a tourist guide, because he could not find a job with his degree.

Chenini, like most small villages in the area has just a few inhabitants left after decades of urbanisation. Like Tarek, the few hundred who remain are almost entirely dependent on income from tourists – foreign and domestic – who come to the village to learn about the area’s indigenous Amazigh past, olive farming and traditional cave-dwelling.

However, even though no positive cases have been detected in the village since the beginning of the pandemic, Covid-19’s effect on tourism is disastrous.

In 2020, Tunisia experienced a 65% drop in tourist revenue compared to the year before, and a 78% drop in number of visitors, corresponding to a contraction of around 7% of the country’s entire economy

“The pandemic is difficult on the village and especially on the tourist guides," Dr Habib Belhedi, who is a dentist in the region’s capital, Tataouine, and manages Chenini’s only tourist lodging, Résidence Kenza-Chenini, tells The New Arab. 

"The village has 15 tourist guides, and they worked really well before March 2020. But now, it has worsened. Chenini on its best days could have thousands of visitors, but not anymore.”

In fact, in 2020, Tunisia experienced a 65% drop in tourist revenue compared to the year before, and a 78% drop in number of visitors, corresponding to a contraction of around 7% of the country’s entire economy. And it seems that smaller villages like Chenini bear the brunt of the tourism drop – not just in Tunisia, but in small tourism-dependent towns around the world, like Sary-Mogol in Kyrgyzstan and in the Peruvian Andes Mountains.

Chenini Tunisia
This area of Tunisia has been arid for centuries [Getty]

The traditional ways of the village

Chenini is a village of just a few hundred inhabitants. The 2014 Census numbers from the Tunisian National Institute of Statistics place Chenini’s population at 404 – a drop from 554 in 2004, and a drop that, according to the locals, has not slowed since the census.

The village is built in levels on the hills, in the shape of a horseshoe; this is the traditional way to optimally utilise the wind and keep the village liveable in the summer when temperatures often reach a sweltering 40 degrees Celsius.

By now, most of the upper levels have been abandoned, and the cave houses in which people used to live are open for exploration. The locals still live in the lower levels, whereas the upper levels have the best views and, arguably, the most potential for converting caves into tourist lodges and accommodate the growing interest in eco-tourism that Chenini is missing out on due to the pandemic.

The village is one of just a handful of places in Tunisia where some still speak the local Amazigh dialect as their main language. The Amazigh – often referred to as Berbers – are an ethnic group indigenous to North and West Africa who are widely regarded as the original inhabitants of the area. Many Tunisians nowadays pride themselves on their Amazigh heritage, even though very few speak the language.

The village is built in levels on the hills, in the shape of a horseshoe; this is the traditional way to optimally utilise the wind and keep the village liveable in the summer

Perhaps as a result of the well-known Tuareg – a traditionally nomadic Amazigh ethnic confederation known for their picturesque, indigo-coloured clothing – people often think of the Amazigh as nomads. While some in Chenini, like Tarek, do claim Tuareg heritage, Chenini and the area’s other Amazigh villages are traditionally sedentary, relying on olive farming and olive oil production for survival, and traditional olive presses are still found in the village.

Around eight kilometres outside of Chenini lay the area’s olive tree fields. At present, the fields appear mostly empty with only few olive trees still standing on each.

“Years ago, the fields used to be filled with olive trees,” explains Tarek, who used to pick olives in the fields as a child. “But now, only the large, old trees remain because of their robustness. Planting new trees is almost impossible with the dry conditions.”

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Asked if there were there noticeably more trees in the fields when he was a child, Tarek exclaimed, “Of course! Many more,” as if self-explanatory.

This area of Tunisia has been arid for centuries – in fact, the locals describe it as the last line of defence between Tunisia and the Sahara Desert. To adapt to the aridness, villagers have developed a water-harvesting system known as Jessour, which traps the sparse rainfall and allows for maximal utilisation by the olive trees.

However, with “abnormally dry conditions [having] prevailed since the 1980s,” the role of agriculture has gradually waned, and most inhabitants have either left Chenini or picked up jobs in tourism locally. And with climate change, everyone in the village knows that agriculture will never again constitute a sustainable way of life.

“There is no future here for young people. They all have university degrees now, and they want to use them,” explains Belhedi.

Ahmed – a young inhabitant of Chenini – works in Résidence Kenza-Chenini with several of his siblings. He is an exception: despite several propositions, he has decided to stay in Chenini for his family. He works at the residence’s reception when new guests arrive.

These days, however, he is most often found sitting at different hillside spots in the village, smoking a cigarette and waiting for work to arrive.

Mahmoud, the 31-year-old owner of one of the village’s two souvenir shops, spends his days watching TV and drinking Turkish coffee with Tarek in his shop, hollering at the few, mostly Tunisian tourists who pass by. Life is slow and boring these days, he contends, once again thanking God that Covid-19 has not spread to the village.

Chenini Tunisia
Chenini is a village of just a few hundred inhabitants [Getty]

A long-term crisis

“El système gabi gabi, el pouvoir gabi gabi,” blasts out of both the car stereo and Tarek’s vocal cords on a drive through the windy hillside roads outside Chenini.

The song is Gabi Gabi from 2015, by Tunisian singer Kafon who accuses both old and new power in Tunisia of being “Gabi” – slang for lousy. It perhaps illustrates that the dire economic situation created by the pandemic feels less like a sudden disaster than the culmination of years of economic decline.

Read also: Tunisia's marginalised Tataouine rises up against broken government promises

“Fifteen years ago, I would go to the market in Tataouine with five dinars, and I would bring back two huge bags of groceries,” says Tarek. “Now, I take 50 dinars, and I get almost nothing.”

Belhedi contends that the biggest long-term obstacle to touristic and economic development in the village lies in what he calls “Tunisia’s illness” – corruption.

“The hardest thing in Tunisia is getting papers from the government. Building a cave in hard rock is hard, but getting permission to do so from the government is even harder,” he explains, unless one is willing to grease the wheels.

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Belhedi runs his tourist lodging, Résidence Kenza-Chenini, out of the traditional caves in the village. He has visitors stay in restored troglodyte caves, as they are known, experiencing the way that the Amazigh inhabitants of the town lived in the past. The caves have no air conditioning – the natural walls keep them warm in the winter and cool in the summer – but are fitted with running water and electricity.

Belhedi and a few of his friends made that possible from scratch with no municipal help laying out water pipes. In fact, Belhedi, who refused to pay the local authorities extra under the table to have his lodging authorised – which is required by Tunisian law – had a university in Sfax run tests on the natural cave wall material to prove to local authorities that it was not just as strong as the reinforced concrete they requested, but stronger.

The 74-year-old dentist also used to run the Earth Memory Museum in the village, but it has not been open for the past 10 years due to difficulty acquiring authorisations. Similarly, Belhedi is working on getting approval for a zipline and an observatory in the village – projects that are currently stuck in paperwork. Résidence Kenza-Chenini has faced the same problems for years, but it was eventually approved.

Read also: A decade on, Tunisia's revolutionary demand for economic justice remains unmet

“Now, all they ask for is a daily list of our guests that they can send to Tunis to make it look like they are doing something,” says Belhedi. “I’ve often suggested to Tarek and the other guides that they open their own guesthouses for tourists, but they always lose interest when they hear of the administrative obstacles.”

With a lack of opportunities for economic development and the added burden of a pandemic, there are fears that the few inhabitants who remain in Chenini might be forced to leave.

“We are especially afraid that all the young people will take to the street and leave the village,” explains Belhedi.

“To Tataouine, Sfax and Tunis?” asks The New Arab.

“No, no, going there is not dangerous. We are afraid they will go to Zarzis to get on a boat and go to Italy. Every time I come here, people tell me: If the pandemic continues for another year or two, I will go to Europe.”

Jakob Plaschke is a freelance journalist and MA student at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.

Follow him on Twitter: @jakobplaschke