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Some practical tips and other experiences
Visa suspense

Tunisia does not require visas from much of the western world but for some reason, Czechs were singled out when traveling individually as an exception. I suspect this may have been because some Czech politician criticized the old Tunisian regime about human rights but I did not find any information to confirm it. The visa requirement has since been changed, so it is not of no practical consequence anymore, but my visa application at the time proved to be a bit more nerve wrecking than I had hoped.

The application could not be submitted more than two months before travel and I applied as soon as I could to make sure I would secure the visa before buying the airfare. I even called to inquire to make sure I had all the right documents, and was told the visa application would be processed within two weeks. I mailed all the documents in, including a prepaid self-addressed express mail envelope to return my passport speedily and securely. A week and half later when I called to inquire about the status, I was told to wait two days and my passport would surely be on its way back. Not having found the tracking number in the USPS system two days later, I called again and was told the consul just got back, and another two days later the passport would definitely be out. This repeated itself at least one more time as I was growing increasingly impatient, until eventually I was told the passport was on its way. To my surprise, there was still no record of it in the tracking system. This prompted another phone call and another confirmation the envelope had been put in the outbox the day before when the mailman should have picked it up.

At that point I started running scenarios that my passport was lost and I would have to cancel the trip. A conference organizer even volunteered to contact the embassy in Washington about it. I also called a former colleague of mine who is from Algeria and whose wife is from Tunisia. He reassured me in his usual easy-going manner (laughing outloud) there was nothing to worry about, and the consul just did not feel like doing it yet, and a runaround by the staff below him was just covering up the delay. I guess nothing beats local experience and of course, he turned out to be right. The passport was mailed another day later. I was set to go.

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Sand dunes near Douz


Language, culture and food

While much of the world has adopted English as a language of tourism, it is far easier to get by with French in Tunisia, as it is in many former French colonies. In general, some of the hotel staff was proficient in English, but out on the street or away from the tourist attractions, English was not useful at all. Resorting to pointing, gestures and smiles usually worked, at least when only the obvious needed to be communicated.

Tunisia was also the first predominantly Muslim country I visited. While the old regime was largely secular, things were a bit in flux when we visited. Since it is a country dependent on the tourism industry, tourists and foreigners would likely notice little of this change that locals themselves reported.

The beach areas catering to tourists do not differ much from beaches on the north side of the Mediterranean. Some tourists, many of them Russian, clearly go about their business without much regard for local customs even elsewhere. As a result, in Tunis medina, revealing clothes and miniskirts worn by tourists were seen next to local women wearing scarves and head-to-toe dresses, and some who were veiled and clad in black. We tried to dress respectfully, at least in the busy medina areas, where Irina would cover her shoulders. After getting unpleasant stares in the medina in Sfax, she covered her forearms too. The lack of head covering was only a problem on a tour of the Great Mosque in Kairouan where we were offered one.

As someone interested in photography, I practiced the same habits I do other places - making an eye contact and asking verbally or with a gesture if it was OK take a picture. I was welcome most of the time. The sole uncomfortable experience happened, of all places, on a beach frequented mostly by the locals.

Speaking about tourism, Tunisia clearly is a destination for plastic surgery as documented by the number of women in Gammarth wearing bandages over their noses. Surgery plus holiday packages are sold that include the cosmetic surgery and a stay at a resort.

While many tourist hotel buffets serve a decidedly European fare, the local cuisine in Tunisia is a pleasure to experience. Local specialties like couscous and harissa, Maghreb or Mediterranean food such as hummus, kebab, lamb chops, and widely locally grown dates and olives were among a few of my favorites. You can even try some camel as I did.

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Local restaurant in Tunis Medina


Costs

It was early June, still well before the height of the tourist season. It was also after some unrest and a political assassination earlier in the year, keeping some tourists away, with more bad news to come in the years ahead. This was likely reflected in the costs of hotels. We stayed in very nice hotels for around USD $60-80 a night which would cover a great buffet dinner and breakfast for both of us. The exception was a hotel on the beach in Sousse at $120 a night which could likely be had for quite a bit less for a longer stay booked farther ahead of time, and the Berber tents in Ksar Ghilane oasis at $50.

The cost of eating out varied but I would put it at 1/2 to 2/3 of typical European prices, not a steal but a good value. The buffets were usually included with the hotels and were a great value. Admissions to historic sites were reasonable and there is so much to see in Tunisia for free, including the colorful local life inside medinas and markets. It is common to bargain in the medinas for souvenirs, various arts and crafts, and starting low without offending the seller is a good idea. Like everywhere, before getting caught up in scoring a bargain, it is good to keep in mind what a fair price may be and that the seller has a family to support.

When it comes to services, we did not feel fleeced anywhere but there was a certain amount of "salesmanship" that one needs to get adjusted to. I have a spreadsheet that covers pretty much all the costs that I would be happy to share.

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Tunisian dinar bills


Last updated: June 27, 2020
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