Friday, 5 August 2011

Riadh Palms Hotel Sousse: The ugly face of Tunisian tourism

By Stanley Collymore.

BILLED AS THE FACEBOOK AND TWITTER Revolution the youth of Tunisia having for years witnessed firsthand the cynical, perpetual, crass and ignominious humiliation fortified by the conscious and degrading exploitation of their parents, several close family members and others in their communities similarly despised and routinely dismissed as irrelevant by the corrupt, damningly arrogant, kleptocratic ruling elite and their cronies in that country and themselves headed by a western picked, staunchly backed and unstintingly supported, long-standing dictator with no seemingly discernible characteristics of note other than a manifest penchant for consolidating his repressive grip on power by any means at his disposal and the massive theft of the wealth of the Tunisian people, which complicity with the full support of his CIA masters, successive US administrations and the governments of other western countries that disingenuously would have us all believe they’re not only the progenitors but also the stalwart guardians of democracy has been hoarded in Swiss banks as well as those of a plethora of other prominent western countries, now having successfully rid themselves and their country of its long-standing dictator, can justifiably feel proud of themselves and their achievement for having courageously managed to do what their grandparents, parents and elders have previously been unable to.

Congratulations aside though, there’s still much work to be done in terms of fashioning Tunisia: a country with a large reservoir of highly intelligent, impressively articulate, very gifted and modern-oriented people particularly among its youth, which constitutes the bulk of the country’s population, into a genuinely modern and secular democracy, as these terms are universally understood and readily accepted by all freedom-loving people across the world.

However, from speaking openly with as well as listening intently to what many of these young people had to say on their pro-democracy marches and protest demonstrations that I was privileged to attend as well as invited to participate in in the Ahla Centre Square, Sousse: encouragingly large numbers of them young women like Asma Neily, a student doctor, and her best friend and fellow university undergraduate, Fatima; Thouraya Romdhani, a college graduate, forced because of a lack of suitable job opportunities available to her to work long hours as a hotel bar waitress just to make ends meet; and their plucky male counterparts like Ben Alaya Menyar, a very resourceful but struggling young business entrepreneur repeatedly denied work opportunities just because he questions the corrupt system of jobs and work allocation that’s quite commonplace throughout Tunisia and suffers because of this, I was left in no doubt whatsoever that while they’re all fully aware of the colossal burden which they have individually as well as collectively shouldered and the enormous consequences for them of having done so, they are none the less quite determinedly resolved to push their country into the 21st century, and in so doing not only establish Tunisia, with its proud antecedents of an ancient civilization and a long cultural history that pre-dates the formation of the Roman Empire, as a bedrock of democracy on the African continent, but are equally keen to see their beloved country Tunisia take its rightful place among the international community of nations, but as an equal and respected player on the global stage, and not anymore as a willing stooge or compliant puppet dancing instinctively at the will or the behest of someone else.

A virtual fiefdom still of France despite having supposedly attained its independence from that country: a measure of this being the conceited arrogance of Nicolas Sarkozy who wanted to dispatch French troops to Tunisia to put down its popular revolution and keep Ben Ali in power, Tunisia for decades now has been the repository of many French companies that have relocated there to massively cut costs by paying to their Tunisian workers starvation wages while repatriating the huge profits they accumulate from doing so back to France.

Tourism is similarly a huge economic earner for Tunisia but regrettably for the majority of Tunisians whether or not they’re employed in that industry but who from personal and very often quite distressing experiences know how precarious a livelihood it is, endemic as it is with long working hours, dreadfully poor wages and bad working conditions, summary and even arbitrary sackings and lay-offs, no suitable forum for the arbitration of disputes between employees and their bosses let alone any compensation mechanism for wrongful dismissal; and, of course, no unemployment benefit structure whatsoever even as a token safety net for those unfortunately finding themselves out of work because of financially advantageous lay-offs or callous sackings by kleptocratic, avaricious, perpetually on the take, for the most part, hotel managements.

Add to this the demoralizing fact that the vast majority of the money which is made from Tunisian tourism isn’t used for the general benefit let alone the overall enhancement of the daily lives of ordinary Tunisians but in reality finds its way out of Tunisia and into western banks and expensive commercial properties, and one can quickly deduce how inequitable and disheartening this realization is for ordinary Tunisians who see themselves routinely regarded with absolute contempt by those who rule them and control their lives, while at the same time blithely perceived by many tourists: who visit their shores but actually know little or nothing about Tunisia, have not the slightest intention of ever rectifying that deficit and care even less about the Tunisians themselves, as nothing more than cash-strapped, financially hard-up sex objects to be easily lured in casual, sexual liaisons through financial inducements, randomly used, discarded at will, and promptly forgotten the moment these abusers board their flights home – until the next visit that is.

Everyone who is involved in the Tunisian tourist industry as well as a large segment of the country’s population know this, just as they’re similarly cognisant that the policy directives which are calculatedly enacted by the managements of many Tunisian hotels are put in place to actively facilitate this rather grotesque sexual exploitation of their economically vulnerable fellow citizens; but the harsh truth is these hotel owners and their managements simply don’t care, as the successful inducements to come to Tunisia bolstered by the actual arrival there in their droves of these sexual predators from Europe and elsewhere vastly augment their bank balances while simultaneously intensifying their rapacious greed; since money and the power they accrue because of it and which enables them to manipulate the lives of others is all that they sadistically care about.

A classic example of this kind of reprehensible conduct is the Riadh Palms Hotel located on Boulevard 7 September, 4039 Sousse, Tunisia. Risibly masquerading as a 4-star and even sometimes describing itself as a 5-star hotel, neither of which by any objective criteria bears any semblance at all to the truth nor can this tired looking, clapped out, antiquated dump be realistically classified as such, the Riadh Palms Hotel is in everything but name a functioning brothel that provides a handsome income for its owner and those who run it.

In Tunisia hotel classifications aren’t determined by the professional services which they offer and that are commensurate to the needs of their guests let alone any standardized global criteria that are swiftly recognized, comprehensively understood and readily accepted by the discerning observer; far from it. The type and level of classification therefore that a hotel in Tunisia is given depends largely and in many instances exclusively on the relationship of the hotel’s owners and management with the ousted president, his family and/or the ruling party and senior government figures augmented by kickbacks to these people, while being careful not to miss the fact that many of those holding power and wielding great influence in Tunisia also have their sticky fingers firmly embedded in all aspects of the Tunisian tourism industry.

So it’s not unusual, although seemingly bizarre, to come across a hotel officially classified by the apposite government ministry as a 3-star institution yet offering globally recognised 4-star treatment to its guests for example, while in marked contrast so-called 4 and 5 star hotels brazenly carrying official government approval as such, miserably lack the kind of standards one would sensibly identify with hotels that genuinely deserve and carry these classifications. The Tunisian differentiation being that graft gets you noticed and also pays handsomely.

In this regard both the ownership and management of the Riadh Palms Hotel, Sousse are unenviably first among equals in this execrable and continuous exploitation which is itself compounded by the wilful stymieing of genuine career opportunities backed by worthwhile financial incentives for Tunisians in general and the hotel’s own impoverished, despised and undervalued workforce in particular.

For starters the hotel’s ownership and management are closely linked to the old, still despotically entrenched, despite the ouster of Ben Ali, and deplorably corrupt regime of 30 plus years duration, enjoying by being so immense privileges not deemed to be appropriate for and thus arbitrarily denied to other far more efficient hotels than the Riadh Palms, which in effect isn’t a particularly onerous task for them, since efficiency and professional standards aren’t exactly bywords one would instinctively consider applying when thoughts of the Riadh Palms Hotel come to mind.

A prime example of this rancid nepotism quickly reared its ugly head soon after the start of Tunisia’s youthful revolution when it rapidly became clear to all but the most intransigent of Ben Ali’s supporters that the game was up for this previously Teflon-coated dictator; and it’s quite remarkable how those who have no qualms in arrogantly and dismissively treating those who they completely and subjectively spurn with the utmost contempt and degradation, often revelling in this perversity as they do so, when their vicious and hegmonistic sphere of influence stays intact, quite suddenly and cowardly cringe with enervating fear the moment they perceive it to be under attack, particularly from those they’re regularly mistreated.

And this is precisely what happened in the case of the principal owner of the Riadh palms Hotel. An odious man, and this is to apply the most charitable definition of him, he hurriedly along with his entire family abandoned his luxurious mansion in affluent Sousse and together with them and a coterie of close hangers-on encamped in exclusive, private executive suites located in what is essentially the original part of what subsequently became a sprawling hotel complex, although this part of the hotel is decidedly separated from the general public areas of the rest of the hotel; the next day the Riadh Palms Hotel got massive military protection, even though it was clearly under no threat whatsoever from anyone, with columns of heavily armed soldiers supplemented by armoured personnel carriers and military trucks, themselves replete with back-up units, posted around its perimeters.

The only hotel in Sousse to be given military protection, and evidently guaranteed this even when the enforced mass evacuation of its packaged-holiday guests back to Europe at the insistence of EU governments there and the relevant tour companies which had brought these guests to the Riadh palms Hotel had caused resident numbers in the hotel to instantaneously and dramatically fall to no more than 40 in total, most of whom were independent travellers not under the direct aegis of any specific tour operator and therefore not subject to the same pressures that were insistently exerted on their packed-holiday counterparts to cut short their vacation and return home, the Riadh Palms Hotel, or more aptly its owner and his entourage, was now in a very privileged position indeed, and one didn’t need to ask why. Curiously too, but unsurprisingly so this hotel in Sousse: the birth place of the ousted president Ben Ali, was the solitary hotel in the area throughout the turmoil of the Revolution, even when its tally of resident guests dropped drastically to under 30 in number, to stay permanently open.

This move though wasn’t an act of altruism or any general concern for the imagined safety of the remaining guests at the Riadh Palms who’d voluntarily opted for a diversity of reasons to stay in Tunisia; rather it was a calculated, cynical, but none the less well-co-ordinated plan to protect those who owned the Riadh Palms while at the same time assuaging their paranoia; in other words, surrendering to one of the oldest instincts known to human kind, looking after one’s own.

If only a modicum of the same level of consideration meted out by the army’s top brass to the ownership and management of the Riadh Palms Hotel were in turn dispensed by the latter to their paying guests, for whom they had not only a contractual obligation but also a moral duty to look after; but it soon became abundantly clear that any such ethical pursuits were evidently far removed from the minds of these detestable, deeply paranoid and utterly self-centred kleptocrats.

In marked contrast and quite instantaneously the hotel instead went into voluntary lock-down mode with ordinary staples like eggs, milk and even soft drinks, among a host of other items, idiosyncratically and bizarrely on the express orders of the hotel’s manager withdrawn from the meal’s menu; food swiftly became scarce as it was clearly being rationed, leading to the differentiation between breakfast, lunch and dinner disappearing completely as the three of them mutated into a hotchpotch of re-heated leftovers from the previous meal.

Right through the hotel lights were kept permanently switched off at nights even in self-evidently communal areas like the reception lobby and the dining hall, raising serious health and safety concerns in the process which weren’t addressed even when these were explicitly drawn to the attention of the hotel’s management; while entertainment, never much to speak of at the best of times, died a pre-mature death with no notification that it was about to be killed off or any announcement of what, if anything, would take its place; it just happened.

The all-inclusive bar shorn too of all non-alcoholic beverages and severely depleted of alcoholic ones as well did go though the motions of pretending to function normally even on drastically restricted hours of staying open; however, its two paying counterparts didn’t have to contend with such proscriptions. Meanwhile, internet and telephone charges at the Riadh Palms Hotel were shamelessly hiked with a phone call there costing four Tunisian Dinars a minute and comparable inflated charges also instituted for internet usage.

With the loss all at once of so many guests one naturally expected there would be some layoffs among the manual workforce, but the cuts when they came weren’t only swift they were also inexcusably ruthless and wide-ranging with the awesome burden of unemployment falling heavily and disproportionately on the shoulders of those farthest down the food chain, while an incompetent management was left unscathed by them.

The square opposite the Ahla Centre in Sousse and which is also fronted by an extensive and lovely promenade that overlooks and affords one a panoramic view of the Mediterranean Sea is an accommodating and tranquil place to be; to meditate and generally ruminate about life. Sadly, it is also a retreat for the impecunious and destitute down on their luck who’ve no choice but to beg in order to keep hunger at bay; and one of the most haunting and recurring memories I shall always carry with me of Sousse is that of a young chef who until the exodus of the Europeans on the 15 January 2011 worked in the kitchen of the Riadh Palms Hotel, but who just two weeks later in this same square was reduced to begging – “Can I ask you for a Dinar?” he requested embarrassedly when he recognized me from his time at the hotel – to attenuate the evident hunger that enforced unemployment and no prospect whatsoever of any unemployment benefit to nullify this had caused.

“A Dinar!” I thought. “How much could this actually get him?” Since this was a quarter of the value of what it cost then to make a minute’s telephone call from the Riadh Palms Hotel. Looked at in that light it firmly puts in perspective the true plight of such Tunisians deemed to be expendable by those that intuitively and somewhat arrogantly consider themselves to be the betters of these unfortunate people, and accounts for why multitudes of young Tunisians decidedly of the opinion that enough was enough angrily took to the streets of their country, ousted their repressive president, and persist on making their voices heard and their feelings known as they insist on nothing less than a government of the people, democratically elected by the people and that serves the interests of the Tunisian people.

But even as the voices of these courageous, young Tunisians, replete with their justifiable demands, reverberated all over Tunisia the reactionaries and opponents of change continued to act as though nothing had happened.

At the Riadh Palms Hotel none of those in management far less the hotel’s manager could explain why the remaining guests at the hotel were for instance being fed unacceptably poor, non-nutritional starvation rations, a development among several others that were brought into play, like forcibly herding guests unwilling to move from the rooms they’d occupied ever since their arrival at the Ridah Palms Hotel into sections of the hotel that they didn’t want to be in, and achieving their goal of doing so by callously turning off the water and lights, with their health implications, in the rooms of these reluctant guests who expressed their wish to stay where they already were, to ensure they did as they were ordered to and moved to where the accommodation manager wanted them to be; or rationing both the air conditioning during the day and the central heating at nights to save costs. A state of affairs that instantly began the minute the coach carrying the last of the evacuees had vacated the forecourt of the Riadh Palms Hotel and headed for the local airport.

How was it, those affected and were prepared to remonstrate about it questioned, that with markedly fewer guests now in residence than what it had on its premises just as short while previously and for whom, had there been no evacuation, the hotel would have had to properly cater for, suddenly and inexplicably the same hotel had amazingly run out of food stocks in a matter of minutes?

With no explanation given or likely to be forthcoming either, a group of French Canadian guests disinclined to put up with such appalling standards of service and food coming from a professed 4-star hotel, terminated their stay at the Riadah Palms Hotel depleting its numbers even further, flew back immediately to Canada where still smarting from the humiliation and dreadful experiences they’d endured at the Riadh Palms Hotel went public on television with their grievances likening their stay there to being in a prison camp, vowed never to return to the Riadh Palms Hotel again and passionately exhorted others to follow their example.

TVA: the Canadian television station that conducted the interviews with these extremely disillusioned returnees from the Riadh Palms Hotel and also aired the programme to millions of Canadians was, as a consequence of the harrowing experiences graphically depicted by its contributors who’d personally gone through hell and back during their regrettable stay at the Riadh Palms Hotel, inundated with supportive calls and messages from its viewers for having aired the programme and providing the Canadian people with a revealing and valuable public service that in turn resulted in an overwhelming number of holiday cancellations to Tunisia, and particularly the Riadh Palms Hotel, by perspective Canadian tourists.

Having from the outset deluded themselves that the Revolution would in due course fizzle out, things would quickly resort to what they were before, and the departed European tourists would then start flooding back to the Riadh Palms Hotel the minute these scenarios occurred, the management there forced into facing reality in the wake of the widespread airing with its calamitous financial repercussions for the Riadh Palms Hotel of TVA’s damning report, and similarly obliged to concede that these criticisms and their ripple effect weren’t just a flash in the pan and wouldn’t simply go away of their own accord but were in effect quite substantive and needed to be addressed, or at least give the impression that this was being done, else it would seriously and perhaps irreparably hurt them where it mattered most – in their wallets – panicked; then just as hastily went into damage limitation mode.

After hurried deliberations the hotel’s management decided to send its marketing director to Quebec to offset the adverse publicity that it was getting in Canada and which showed no immediate signs of abating there; but firstly it embarked on the degrading artifice of trying to bribe the mainly Québécois residents at the hotel to embrace its desperate ploy, leap on board this falsely assembled bandwagon it was laboriously rolling out, and bestow their full support to what undeniably would rank as one of the most surreal antics imaginable. Like mushrooms proliferating in the dark, short but succinct notices exclusively in French started to appear at strategic sites in the hotel. Devoid of any subtlety though they stated, and I quote in full:

«Tous nos Clients peuvent bénéficier d’une heure d’Internet gratuite. Prenez à votre Connaissance que le site: Est à votre disposition pour tout commentaire concernant votre Hôtel Riadh Palms.»

Even to someone with only a rudimentary knowledge of French what was being said and the purpose of it were absolutely clear.

Just how many gullible takers there were is anybody’s guess; the crucial point here is why would a supposedly 4-star hotel, as the Riadh Palms Hotel declares it is even exaggerating at times that it is a 5-star one, have to resort to such extreme and desperate tactics if on the one hand it is actually what it says it is and on the other it is providing services equal to those of a 4 or 5 star hotel as these descriptions are internationally known, respected and accepted? But then the Riadh Palms Hotel in Sousse doesn’t rationally command any such authenticity.

So what then in precise terms is the true analysis of the Riadh Palms Hotel? Well, to use a common pejorative expression which is readily and fully understood by most, it’s a dissolute knocking shop that with the full awareness and tacit support of the hotel’s management caters substantially for sex tourism. To this end its patrons: basically middle aged, old and even the very elderly of both genders but principally sexually active women that are either divorced, widowed or separated, although not exclusively so, are long-stayers at the hotel who use it as a sort of extraterritorial retirement home ostensibly to escape the accursed vicissitudes of the harsh, northern wintry weather in their respective countries but who during their lengthy stay in Tunisia importunately pursue a far less innocuous agenda which noticeably shows up the darker side of their characters.

And running the risk of sounding and even possibly criticized for being judgemental I’ll nevertheless stand my ground and candidly assert that while everyone has an absolute right to a sexual life if they choose to, there’s none the less something rather pathetic and even quite sickening about physically matured adults refusing to grow old gracefully, something that is a crucial aspect of the normal course of life, forever trying instead to revisit a misspent youth, and doing so with and at the expense of impecuniously disadvantaged sexual partners: little more than minors, that they lasciviously prey on and who are often much younger than their own biological grandchildren.

Add to this the horrifying fact that the Riadh Palms Hotel in the 21st century, and at a time when all progressive countries and public institutions therein have for perfectly valid health reasons banned smoking within their jurisdictions this hotel is still grotesquely stuck in what can only be honestly described as a smoking time warp where even the reception lobby isn’t free of this rather accursed and nocuous health hazard, and one will quickly begin to realize with utter disgust just how backward the Riadh Palms Hotel in what it does and stands for is.

So Quo Vadis Riadh Palms Hotel? My prompt answer is nowhere consequential that I can see if left to its own devices, leopards after all don’t change their spots; and what’s required not only in the case of the running of this hotel but also its ownership and entire management is a thorough root and branch change that is both permanent and transparent, not a proverbial swapping of deckchairs to create a cosmetic illusion of change on this intransigently doomed Tunisian Titanic. For what goes on at the Riadh Palms Hotel is outright diabolical and every bit as corrupt and unacceptable to common decency and morality as was the case with ousted president Ben Ali and his despised regime, and those associated with this hotel must for the greater good of the Tunisian tourism industry and the financial security and general welfare of those who conscientiously work in it go the same way; and the sooner the better.

Binge drinking and haughtily behaving on holiday as if one were an accredited delegate to an ASBO convention is one thing; however, I’d like to say to Maria from Ireland, Dorothy and Renate from Germany, Gary and Ashley from England, Sanja from Croatia, Wilma from the Netherlands and other like-minded abusers that frequent the Riadh Palms Hotel there’s nothing cool, virtuous or remotely redeeming about indulging in sex tourism whose negative and often long-term effects on those abused are well documented, because if there was you wouldn’t need to go to Tunisia or other well known destinations to participate in it and would simply practise it in your own countries; but you know how anathema it is there that’s why you don’t, at least not openly.

In conclusion I’m well aware that the Riadh Palms Hotel will, for a number of reasons that range from the naïve to the nefarious, have its supporters; that’s only to be expected. But so too do the advocates of paedophilia, denial of the holocaust, and those who believe that Elvis Presley is still alive; but no decent, sane, rational or thinking person takes them seriously, so why deviate from this sound position to make the Riadh Palms Hotel in Sousse an exception?

Instead conscionably lend your support to the heroic young people of Tunisia in their hour of need and assist them in closing down this moral and venal monstrosity and all others like it in their country and elsewhere for that matter, in the renewed hope that out of the ashes of their demise an inspirational and enduring phoenix will rise to herald in a new dawn with brighter prospects for these and all other oppressed peoples.

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