Welcome to Tunis - You Can Even Keep Your Passport

Israeli tourists have discovered Tunisia - not only to revisit their roots, but also to enjoy a relaxing vacation.

"How's Maccabi Haifa?" the vendor in the Tunis market asks Ada Nakash, a tourist from Kfar Hanagid. She bursts out laughing and answers: "I barely know what Maccabi Haifa is." Nevertheless, the failure on this surprise quiz did not affect the enjoyment she and her Paul experienced during their visit to Tunisia. Planned as a trip to discover the roots of Paul, who was born in Tunis, the visit also turned out to be an enjoyable vacation: Israeli tourists now arriving at the Tunis airport are not required to leave their passports with immigration authorities and travel through the country as if they are thieves in the night. The Nakashes were part of the first group of tourists to visit Tunisia as if it were any other country. "They stamped a visa with Arabic letters in our passports right on top of the seven-branched candelabra that appears superimposed on the Israeli flag," Ada Nakash says delightedly.

In the 1990s, Israeli tourists came to Tunisia primarily to see the homes from where their families had emigrated. At a later stage, they came to visit the Berber communities built underground and to paraglide over the Sahara dunes, and today they can visit Tunisia simply for a relaxing holiday. As of this year, Tunisia is marketing itself to Israelis as a tranquil vacation spot.

If an Israeli citizen had arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport in the 1980s and said he was off to Tunis, he would have been arrested immediately by passport control police. In those days, the headquarters of the PLO, led by Yasser Arafat, were located there, and Tunis was associated with Arab capitals most hostile to Israel: Damascus, Baghdad and Beirut. Today, the Foreign Ministry is mostly concerned about Israelis who regard Tunisia as quite close and accessible, and consider a visit to the country as a given. "The most important thing is that people don't just randomly get on a plane and show up," says the head of the ministry's North African desk, Yigal Palmor. "The main problems we have encountered so far with trips to Tunisia have been with people who traveled there without making sure to get a visa in advance."

Palmor says that most Israelis travel to Tunis via Istanbul or other European capitals. Visas can be obtained from travel agencies as part of an organized tour purchase, but that isn't the only way. Anyone wanting to taste harissa and couscous on his own, and walk among the ruins of Carthage can obtain a visa from Tunisian representations abroad.

The interest offices set up by Israel and Tunisia in 1996 in each other's country closed after the start of the intifada. Since then, the two countries have not renewed formal diplomatic relations, but the Tunisian government is trying to remove obstacles blocking the easy entry of Israeli tourists. "By nature, I'm afraid," Nakash says. "But the protection there gave us an unusual sense of safety. There was a constant escort of secret police and overt policemen on motorcycles."

Tunisia has much to gain from the emotional tranquility of Jewish visitors. The Lag Ba'Omer and Shavuot holidays attract thousands of visitors annually at the ancient synagogue on the island of Djerba. Most tourists are from France, but last year there was a noticeable Israeli presence among those in the wagon-led procession displaying the synagogue's candelabrum of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai.

A terrorist attack not far from the synagogue, in which 18 people, mostly German tourists, were killed, occurred in April 2002. As a result, Jewish tourism to Tunisia was severely affected, which has been particularly evident at the synagogue during other festivals that have since transpired. In response, the Tunisian authorities have further facilitated visits by Israelis, even going as far as eliminating the need to hand over one's passport upon arrival.

Iris Cohen, an agent with the tour operator Discovery who visits Tunisia every month, describes a visit there now as a dream vacation. "Living inside a bubble of the intifada and terrorist attacks, and then suddenly traveling to an Arab country and roaming around leisurely and confidently does something to you." She says Tunisia is a particularly surprising venue for Israeli tourists given that it is the Arab world's most secular country. "Some of the tourists can't believe that such things exist in an Arab country. For example, the issue of the status of women. The law bans marrying two wives, women hold key positions and walk around outside with uncovered heads." Although the world's most prominent Tunisian woman is the movie director Moufida Tlatli, whose work focuses on the oppression of Tunisian women, she also has pointed out her country's unique modernity. If her battle on behalf of Tunisian women has not ended, it is because it has already proven its ability to yield results.

Cohen first visited Tunisia in 1993, and was a pioneer in leading trips there to revisit one's roots. Gradually she noted increasing interest in Israel, including among those with no family connection to Tunisia or North Africa. Her company, which is a subsidiary of Natour, started offering "geographic tours" of Tunisia, including the lovely capital city, well-preserved antiquities in ancient Roman and Phoenician cities, desert oases and unique geographical phenomena.

Other companies, including Ramon Tours and Geographical Tours, slowly have started offering longer tours across Tunisia. Those looking for a vacation and some relaxation can find week-long trips to the resort town of Hamamat. The price is $1,000 per adult, and includes side trips to nearby sites.

For Europeans, Tunisia has long been a popular vacation destination. Just 80 kilometers from the shores of the European Union is a warm, developed country with no less than five Club Med villages. In the late 1990s, three million tourists visited Tunisia annually. However despite the impact of the 2002 terrorist attack, that number doubled last year. Now, many Israelis are also joining those vacationing in Tunisia. "It's a very close destination, and in the end, the Israeli looks for the Mediterranean Sea," Cohen says.