By Tim Cocks and Tarek Amara
TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's revolution in January scared off enough tourists to halve arrivals and slash revenues by almost half to 1.8 billion dinars ($1.3 billion), the tourism minister said Wednesday.
Speaking to Reuters in an interview in Tunis, Trade and Tourism Minister Mehdi Houas also said Hilton Worldwide and Accor had agreed to resume operations suspended during the revolution.
Accor is due to re-open two hotels shut down by the mass protests that toppled former president Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, after 23 years of autocratic rule.
Tourist numbers are expected to fall to 3.5 million, he said, compared with 7 million tourists in 2010 who together brought in 3.5 billion dinars ($2.55 billion) in revenues.
"It's been terrible. The only sector affected was tourism, and of course (related) work. But it's terrible for the economy as a whole because it's 50 percent of our foreign exchange," he said.
"We lost a lot, especially compared with what we should have had. Next year, I want us to make a strong comeback."
Tourism is a key source of income for Tunisia, accounting for 6.5 percent of its gross domestic product. Houas said It employs one in five Tunisians, directly and indirectly.
He said he expected the sector could rebound, as the risk-shy tourists who used to flock to the North African country for its Mediterranean sun and sand realize it is not dangerous.
Part of the problem was that Tunisia's target market comprised tourists easily spooked by bad news, such as older people or middle income families, who book long in advance.
"South Africa is infinitely more dangerous than Tunisia. But still we go, we agree to stay in hotels surrounded by guards," he said. "But Tunisia's image is peace, quiet, relaxation. So we have a little bit of trouble, and people don't come anymore."
Tour operators like TUI Germany and Thomas Cook AG are trying to encourage people to go back to Tunisia and Egypt, after those countries' revolutions, with partial success.
"This is no crisis. It's a revolution. But many tourists didn't understand. Next year, they'll come back," Houas said.
He said the greatest losses in arrivals numbers were from the 2 million or so Libyan tourists who came to Tunisia each year for its better shopping or medical care, but were now either trapped in Libya's war or had fled it and gone elsewhere.
Houas said he was tackling the fall in tourist numbers by launching a publicity campaign to attract them back.
Tunisia had signed cooperation agreements on marketing in the past few weeks with tourism ministries in France -- which normally sends 1.4 million tourists a year -- Spain and Italy, which send hundreds of thousands.
"We are going to do, for the first time, a campaign specific to each country," he said. "We've tripled our budget for this."
He said Tunisia was aiming to diversify the kinds of tourism it does beyond the package beach holidays it has become famous for, to high-end tourism, eco-tours to palm-fringed islands and late night clubs and bars for the younger party crowd.
He was in talks with investors on plans to expand space for luxury boats. Some Italian investors would build three marinas.
Growth markets included Russia, which sent 200,000 tourists last year, and China, whose small share was expected to surge.
(Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Ron Askew)