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TUNISIA: Provocative advertising campaign stirs the pot in foreign capitals

June 17, 2011 |  9:23 am

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During Tunisia's popular uprising, which led to the ouster of President Zine el Abidine ben Ali in January, tourists deserted the country en masse.

Advertising agencies are now trying to attract tourists and sunbathers back to Tunisia's beaches and Roman ruins through a controversial billboard campaign that is stirring the pot in foreign capitals.

One billboard appearing on public buses in London features an image of a woman receiving a back massage with the accompanying text, "They say that in Tunisia some people receive heavy-handed treatment."

Another poster reportedly running in the campaign depicts the country's fabled Roman ruins next to the line: "They say Tunisia is nothing but ruins."

More than 300 people died in the Tunisian uprising, which began in December. Opponents of Ben Ali say they were rounded up, detained and tortured in prisons during his rule.

But the advertising agency Memac Ogilvy, which created the campaign for the Tunisian Tourism Board, defended the ads in an interview with the BBC, saying they were intended to get talk going among potential tourists and that they weren't inconsiderate to Tunisians who may have suffered under Ben Ali.

"The idea was to be provocative, to address possible fears around the issue of the Arab Spring," Syrine Cherif of Memac Ogilvy told the BBC's "Focus on Africa" program. "This unfair treatment was done by people who were in the dictatorship, and now the dictatorship has gone. It's over. Today it's a new Tunisia."

Tunisia's tourism industry reportedly provided hundreds of thousands of jobs among the country's 10 million people, and is estimated to be worth more than $2 billion to the national economy. 

But while advertising agencies put out campaigns aimed at attracting tourists to a new and freer Tunisia, more conservative voices are finding sway in the country. In February, several people were injured when hundreds of bearded Islamists took to the streets of the capital in an attempt to close down a brothel. Tunisia is the only Arab country where prostitution is widely tolerated and abortion is legal.

On Wednesday, Tunisia's Internet Agency announced that it would block all pornographic sites on the Internet, following a court ruling. 

The Tunisian court of appeals made its decision on grounds that porn sites constitute a danger to the country's youth and that X-rated sites violate Muslim values, according to a report by Agence France-Presse.

Last month, a number of Internet sites and profiles on Facebook were reportedly ordered blocked by a Tunisian military tribunal for unclear reasons. The censorship order resulted in the resignation of blogger and free-speech advocate Slim Amamou, who was appointed junior minister for youth in the interim government that followed the overthrow of Ben Ali.

 -- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: A London billboard advertising tourism in Tunisia. Credit: BBC

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