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A sea change in Tunisia

By Sylvia Smith for CNN

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Tunisians have long recognized the health benefits of thalassotherapy.

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Tunisia

TUNIS, Tunisia (CNN) -- Sea water has long been recognized as being good for the health.

And now the North African nation of Tunisia is finding that salty brine is also good for the health of its economy.

Although 5 million tourists flock to its sandy beaches every year, the country has decided that a new and trendy way of using sea water will bring in better revenues than appealing solely to the traditional buck and spade holiday maker.

It all comes down to a method of bathing known as thalassotherapy -- a sea water cure based on ocean or sea heated to body temperature and much beloved by the French of a certain age and certain bank balance.

With over 250,000 people employed in seasonal tourism, and a further 90,000 year-round full-time employees, tourism tops Tunisia's other industries as a foreign currency earner.

But although visitor numbers are higher than in any other of its Maghrebi neighbors, the classic Tunisian package holiday simply does not live up to its promise if visitor numbers are compared with returns per head.

"If we look at the older, more affluent European traveler who comes to Tunisia for a thalassotherapy cure," said Khaled Cheikh, Director of Tunisia's Tourism office.

"We notice that they come for a longer stay -- often out of season. And they spend a lot more money. The ratio is 10 to one. That means thalassotherapy could easily become a key part of our new strategy."

While Tunisia's new tourism strategy doesn't sideline the basic sea and sand holiday maker, it is beginning to inch it from center stage.

According to Tijani Haddad who has been Minister of Tourism since last November, the industry is looking for other markets further afield and is hoping to tempt them with a range of products -- among them the health and well being sector.

"With huge competition from countries around the Mediterranean basin, we must expand our appeal," he told CNN. "Polls show that we are known mainly as a beach resort, whereas the reality is that we have much more to offer."

In fact statistics show that with an ageing European population on their doorstep, Tunisia can very profitably exploit a practice that goes back to Roman times.

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The Romans built baths around natural springs that gush from the earth.

Throughout the duration of their empire in North Africa the Romans built baths around the scores of natural springs that gush out of the earth so as to benefit from soaking in the mineral-rich waters.

Many of these ancient natural springs still flow today containing sulphur and remain effective in treating skin and respiratory ailments.

A chain of thermalism centers caters largely for Tunisians themselves. The Tunisian national health service offers long stays for free including specialist water treatments for locals with a variety of illnesses.

Now the facilities are to be upgraded so as to give foreign tourists the chance to "take the waters" in more luxurious surroundings.

This two pronged approach to increasing health tourism through the benefits of water -- whether fresh or salty - was initiated by Tunisia's President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali through a series of measures including financial incentives to encourage investment in improving existing facilities and building new hotels.

If proof were needed of the wisdom of this decision, one needs look no further than one of Tunisia's leading thalassotherapy hotels, La Residence, situated by the sea in a suburb of Tunis.

According to Emna Bouchoucha, Director of its thalassotherapy center, the hotel is full throughout the year.

"Independent travelers come here because of thalassotherapy in the winter. 10 months out of 12 it is that rather than the beach that attracts them," she says.

"Visitors stay six days or more so as to feel the benefits and have four treatments a day. That money is paid directly here, not to foreign tour operators. France is number one for thalassotherapy, but Tunisia runs them a very close second."

Although prices are low compared with France, sea water cures are hugely profitable for this small North African country.

And it is likely that this niche market will continue to expand as health-conscious Europeans become ever more ready to globetrot in search for natural remedies for Western stress.

Images courtesy Richard Duebel

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