By Lin Noueihed and Tarek Amara
DJERBA, Tunisia (Reuters) - Tunisia hopes visitors from Russia, Asia and the United States and an "Open Skies" treaty with Europe will help tourism recover from the effect of last year's revolt that scared away foreigners, the country's top tourism official said.
Visitor numbers slumped by 2.5 million to 4.5 million last year when autocratic leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in a popular uprising that sparked the Arab Spring, causing tourists to flee or cancel bookings.
Tourism Minister Elyess Fakhfakh said numbers would recover this year, but not to the 7 million level of 2010 and, as well as luring Europeans back to the beaches, Tunisia aimed in the longer term to attract sunseekers from Russia and diversify into cultural, desert, spa and golf tourism.
"About 80 percent of Tunisia's visitors come from just six countries. We are looking to expand that," Fakhfakh told Reuters in an interview on the sidelines of a Mediterranean tourism conference on the island of Djerba this week.
Tunisia's top foreign currency-earner, tourism accounts for some 6.5 percent of the North African country's gross domestic product and employs some 500,000 people, making it the biggest job provider after the labor-intensive farming sector.
In an effort to increase air traffic, Tunisia is in negotiations with the European Union to sign an "Open Skies" agreement that would make it easier for foreign and low cost airlines to use Tunisian airports.
Another tourism-reliant North African country, Morocco, signed such a deal in 2006, which spurred a huge growth in low-cost flights to Marrakesh but hit the profits of the state-owned airline Royal Air Maroc.
"The negotiations will open before June," Fakhfakh said. "Talks by other countries have taken six months to a year so hopefully in 2013 we will open our skies at least to the European Union."
While Tunisia made a relatively smooth transition to democracy, with a new constituent assembly elected last October, a war in neighboring Libya that pushed tens of thousands of refugees over the border held back the recovery.
An increase in bookings for the 2012 summer season, has raised expectations that the sector, which earned 2.4 billion dinars ($1.6 billion) in 2011, was recovering.
"Tourism is recovering," Fakhfakh said. "We expect 6 million visitors this year."
"In terms of income, we lost 33 percent last year or about 1 billion dinars ... compared to 2010 and hopefully this year we will recover half of what we lost, which is 500 million dinars," Fakhfakh said.
Tunisia is working with other Mediterranean countries to develop multi-stop packages aimed at encouraging long-haul visitors from Asia and America to make the journey.
One idea involves creating "Roman tours" on which visitors could visit Roman sites in several Mediterranean countries.
"We doubled the promotional budget this year to reach near 30 million euros ($39 million)," Fakhfakh said.
Tunisia is also seeking to develop tourism infrastructure in more deprived central regions as well as on the coast.
Qatari Diar, the property arm of the Gulf state's sovereign wealth fund, is pushing ahead with a $100 million resort in the southern oasis of Tozeur and Tunisia had received interest from other investors, Fakhfakh said. ($1 = 0.7609 euros)
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)