Tunisia: Untapped Opportunity in Special Economic Zones, an Adrianople Group Report
Visiting Tunisia revealed regional contrasts and economic opportunity.
On my recent trip to Tunisia, I visited Tunisia’s two functioning free trade zones, termed Economic Activities Parks, in Bizerte and Zarzis.
Tunisia, North Africa’s smallest nation, is centrally located on the Mediterranean. It borders Algeria and Libya, and is a short sea crossing from Italy. Tunisia is home to two free trade zones, and is building a third, in Ben Guerdane, near the Libyan border.
Both the Bizerte and Zarzis parks were created under a 1992 law signed by then-president Ben Ali to encourage foreign investment, as part of a broader market liberalization program undertaken by his rather authoritarian government. To this day they operate as public-private partnerships providing space for tenants to operate diverse projects.
Bizerte is located in Tunisia’s north. I reached it easily by louage (shared taxi) from Tunis in around an hour. Bizerte is relatively developed, sitting on the country’s affluent northern coastline. The Bizerte Park of Economic Activities is in a central location not far from the city center.
Unfortunately, the park management did not return my emails, so I showed up unannounced. Fortunately however, I was welcomed in following a brief security check complicated by the language barrier.
The language barrier continued to be an issue inside the park, as the management largely did not speak English. However, I was able to speak briefly with a representative who had decent command of English, and was given a brochure on the park and the advantages of investing in it.
The handbook also included a handful of logos of the park’s tenants.
Additionally, I was not permitted to tour the park, even with a guide. Even loitering in the relatively public area of the park (home to offices and a post office, not tenants) was discouraged, and I was helpfully directed to the exit.
My experience in Zarzis contrasted with Bizerte significantly. Zarzis is a town in the southeast of Tunisia, far from Tunis and close to the Libyan border. The British foreign office advises against “all but essential travel” to Zarzis and the region is noticeably less developed than Tunisia’s largest cities (at least in part due to deliberate neglect under Ben Ali).
Zarzis is best accessed by plane from Djerba-Zarzis International Airport. I flew there on from Tunis, which took under one hour. From there, another louage from Djerba, taking another hour, is needed. The Economic Activities Park is secluded outside of the city and isn’t frequented by taxis. As such, while a taxi can be taken to the park, plans for a return trip must be made. Alternatively, the city is small enough that the distance is walkable (30-40 minutes from the city center).
I had previously received an email reply from Mokhtar Hamouda, the park’s commercial director, inviting me for a visit. I was promptly received in his office and served tea, demonstrating a professional and traditionally Tunisian business environment.
The park is home to 44 different companies from 12 different countries, primarily European (aside from Tunisia and one American company). Industry and manufacturing are the preferred sectors since the park aims to directly create local jobs, but IT, telecommunications, and logistics companies can be found as well. Additionally, processing Libyan oil in the more stable country of Tunisia is another specialty of the park.
All the projects are self-financed and the park does not deal with financing. It simply rents space and provides basic services like water and electricity. The park itself is a public-private partnership, funded by foreign and domestic investors, and private and state-owned banks. However, all the tenants are private companies.
Unlike in Bizerte, I was given a tour of the entire park, but my guide did not speak English and I was not permitted to take any pictures. There are in fact many tenants, but a large portion of the park’s land is underutilized.
A ubiquitous feature of the park are the many containers and crates, owing to its position next to a port. Company projects are largely housed in warehouses. One unique element I noticed were flue-gas stacks topped with a flame, likely connected to plastic manufacturing.