Tunisian Producers See Promise in Olive Oil Tourism

Tunisian producers are exploring how olives, one of the country's biggest natural resources, can potentially lure a new kind of tourist.

Reserve Familiale Ben Ismail
Jul. 26, 2018
By Isabel Putinja
Reserve Familiale Ben Ismail

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Tunisia has long been a tourist des­ti­na­tion for mostly sun-seek­ing Europeans. But as alter­na­tive mod­els for tourism are explored, there’s a new inter­est in devel­op­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for vis­i­tors to learn about aspects of Tunisian cul­ture, includ­ing food.

It’s a sim­ple aspect of Tunisian life and cul­ture that can be fun and mean­ing­ful for trav­el­ers who want an authen­tic expe­ri­ence.- Austin Hand, Engaging Cultures

One-third of Tunisia’s land is cov­ered in olive groves and a grow­ing num­ber of Tunisian olive grow­ers are pro­duc­ing high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oils. Thanks to grow­ing inter­na­tional recog­ni­tion for Tunisian olive oils, there’s a devel­op­ing inter­est in the poten­tial for olive oil tourism in this North African coun­try.

Much like wine tourism, olive oil tourism (also called oleo­tourism) is a grow­ing indus­try in olive-grow­ing regions around the world. Inspired by the pop­u­lar­ity of agro­tourism in Europe and olive oil roads” in Italy, Spain and Croatia, pro­duc­ers are now explor­ing how to apply this model in Tunisia.

Leo Siebert, an inter­na­tional devel­op­ment con­sul­tant liv­ing and work­ing in Tunisia, is exam­in­ing the poten­tial for an alter­na­tive tourism model that could also cre­ate an impact in other ways.

At an inter­na­tional olive oil sym­po­sium in Sfax ear­lier this year, I made a pre­sen­ta­tion on how to pro­mote olive oil tourism in Tunisia,” Siebert told Olive Oil Times. The idea gen­er­ated inter­est and con­ver­sa­tion, espe­cially among pro­duc­ers and cer­tain investors. Of course, this would mean a big invest­ment and also poten­tially a big risk as olive oil tourism would be a new endeavor for the coun­try. And it will require some buy-in and coop­er­a­tion from the gov­ern­ment.”


But it also cre­ates a sec­ond tourist sea­son in the win­ter, dur­ing the olive har­vest, once Tunisia’s tra­di­tional beach tourists have all gone home. For olive oil tourism to work, there is a need to cre­ate small hotels and bed and break­fasts in the coun­try’s rural inte­rior. So olive oil tourism presents a sig­nif­i­cant oppor­tu­nity to diver­sify Tunisia’s tourism offer­ings while bring­ing sus­tain­able devel­op­ment to rural com­mu­ni­ties.”

Initiatives in this new tourism prod­uct are already being put into action on a mod­est scale. A few pro­duc­ers already wel­come vis­i­tors to their olive groves set in scenic land­scapes and have recently set up tast­ing rooms and oppor­tu­ni­ties for guided tast­ings as well as classes led by sen­sory experts. Many oth­ers are plan­ning to develop olive oil tourism in the near future and are tak­ing the first steps.

Located in north-east Tunisia, just over an hour’s drive south of the cap­i­tal Tunis, is the agri­cul­tural region of Zaghouan where olives have been cul­ti­vated for thou­sands of years. Segermès is a sixth-cen­tury Roman city that once stood here and the name of the olive farm and mill run today by Mounir Boussetta.

After a long pro­fes­sional career in France, in 2014 Boussetta turned his atten­tion to devel­op­ing Domaine de Segermès and the pro­duc­tion of high-qual­ity olive oil from the land and cen­turies-old olive trees he inher­ited from his father.

Mounir and Zohra Boussetta (Isabel Putinja)

Produced here are his organic extra vir­gin Chetoui and Chemlali olive oils that have won mul­ti­ple inter­na­tional awards from BIOL Italy, Olive Japan and Mario Solinas.

On the 300 hectares of land mak­ing up the farm are not only olive trees but also ancient ruins, includ­ing an antique olive oil mill, the remains of a Byzantine church with part of its mosaic floors intact, as well as a sar­coph­a­gus and bap­tis­tery dat­ing from the 6th cen­tury. Close by is a Roman water tem­ple and aque­ducts built in the year 122 by Emperor Hadrian.

The scenic land­scape and moun­tain views, com­bined with his­toric Roman ruins, end­less rows of olive trees, and an on-site pro­duc­tion unit make this the ideal des­ti­na­tion for olive oil tourism.

Set in beau­ti­fully land­scaped grounds is a con­tem­po­rary build­ing designed by renowned Tunisian archi­tect Adel Hidar hous­ing the pro­duc­tion unit which includes a two-phase mill, a stor­age area, bot­tling unit and even a lab. On the upper floor is a tast­ing room with floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows open­ing onto a spa­cious ter­race with a view of the moun­tains in the dis­tance.

I would like to wel­come olive oil lovers to our domaine,” Boussetta said. Here we have ter­roir, spec­tac­u­lar land­scapes, and even his­tory thanks to the ruins located on our prop­erty. And of course, high-qual­ity olive oil that has been pro­duced in Tunisia for 3,000 years. We can also show vis­i­tors the entire pro­duc­tion chain from tree to bot­tle. This is why I decided to explore how to develop olive oil tourism here. At the moment I’m test­ing this and will see which direc­tion to go in.”

In the region of Tebourba, 60 km west of Tunis, the Mahjoub fam­ily of Les Moulins Mahjoub has been pro­duc­ing olive oil from the north Tunisian Chetoui vari­ety for three gen­er­a­tions. Since 1990 they have pro­vided their organic olive oil and other food prod­ucts like olive spreads, harissa, sun-dried toma­toes and capers to the Belgian bak­ery and fine food chain, Le Pain Quotidien, export­ing to the U.S. and two dozen other coun­tries.

Abdelmajid Mahjoub (Photo: Isabel Putinja)

Visitors to the region are wel­come to visit the fam­i­ly’s impec­ca­bly main­tained tra­di­tional 135-year-old oil mill. The old fam­ily pho­tographs on dis­play in the office area add to the atmos­phere of old world charm that reigns here. Behind the mill, a garage has been con­verted into a rus­tic-look­ing tast­ing area made up of reclaimed wine bar­rel tables and a small museum dis­play­ing a 2,500-year-old stone press, amphora, tra­di­tional tools and infor­ma­tional pan­els.

Though many Tunisian pro­duc­ers have switched to mod­ern two-phase mills, there are tra­di­tional mills like this one using gran­ite mill­stones and hydraulic presses still in oper­a­tion across the coun­try. Through this tra­di­tional process, the oil is not sep­a­rated by cen­trifu­ga­tion like in mod­ern mills but through nat­ural decanta­tion, or cold sta­tic decanta­tion.

The pros and cons of each method is a hotly debated topic, but the cold-pressed oil pro­duced by Moulins de Mahjoub is not only cer­ti­fied organic but also meets the chem­i­cal and organolep­tic require­ments to be labeled extra vir­gin.

This tra­di­tional know-how is part of the fam­i­ly’s phi­los­o­phy. It’s not because we are against moder­nity,” explains Abdelmajid Mahjoub, gen­eral man­ager of the fam­ily busi­ness. We want to link tra­di­tion and moder­nity while main­tain­ing qual­ity. For me, the mod­ern process is ster­il­ized.”

What we’re doing is haute cou­ture’ and not prêt-à-porter’,” he explains, mak­ing the anal­ogy between high-qual­ity hand­crafted goods and indus­tri­ally-pro­duced prod­ucts. Our prod­ucts are hand­made and just like our moth­ers would make at home. It’s this social link that gives the excep­tional taste to our prod­ucts.”

Forty-five kilo­me­ters south-west of Tebourba in the gov­er­norate of Beja is Toukaber, the ancient site of Thuccabor, a for­mer Roman city at an ele­va­tion of 620 meters. Few tourists ven­ture here but this is per­haps one of Tunisia’s most pic­turesque regions. From the Ben Ismail fam­i­ly’s farm, Réserve Familiale Ben Ismail, is a sweep­ing view of rolling hills rem­i­nis­cent of Tuscany.

Inspired by the tri­umphal arch of Thuccabor, one of the ancient mon­u­ments mak­ing up the Roman site that’s their ances­tral home, the fam­ily named their brand Triomphe Thuccabor. Launched in 2016 by Mohamed Ben Ismail and his sons Maher and Salah, this organic extra vir­gin olive oil is an intense fruity organic Chetoui that has been rec­og­nized by inter­na­tional awards in Athens, London and Los Angeles, and is exported to Japan, France and Switzerland.

Earlier this year, the Ben Ismails opened Tunisia’s first olive oil bar in a ded­i­cated space on the fam­ily farm, which also includes an on-site bou­tique and an edu­ca­tion cen­ter where weekly train­ing work­shops are offered in sen­sory analy­sis led by an expert.

Maher Ben Ismail (Isabel Putinja)

Olive pro­duc­tion can vary from one year to the other so in order to have a sta­ble income as olive pro­duc­ers we thought about look­ing into olive oil tourism,” said Maher Ben Ismail of the fam­i­ly’s deci­sion to actively wel­come vis­i­tors to their farm. We got the idea for this project after vis­it­ing farms in Italy and Spain where a lot of work has been done in the field of olive tourism. This can also increase the vis­i­bil­ity of our prod­ucts and at the same time attract vis­i­tors to our region.”

Visitors to the Ben Ismail’s domaine are greeted per­son­ally by a mem­ber of the fam­ily and given a tour of their groves and on-site pro­duc­tion unit. So far, a dozen train­ing work­shops in sen­sory assess­ment have been held here, while numer­ous groups from mostly European coun­tries have vis­ited the farm. Advanced train­ing for olive oil pro­fes­sion­als is planned for the near future.

As pro­duc­ers set up the nec­es­sary facil­i­ties to wel­come olive oil lovers to their farms in north­ern Tunisia, it’s in cen­tral Tunisia that per­haps the very first ini­tia­tive related to olive oil tourism was intro­duced.

Domaine de Segermes

Engaging Cultures is a socially-con­scious travel com­pany work­ing in Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and Tunisia that caters to inde­pen­dent trav­el­ers inter­ested in engag­ing with local cul­tures through unique expe­ri­ences.

It started with an idea based on the prin­ci­ple of our com­pany: to help trav­el­ers expe­ri­ence the cul­ture and peo­ple of Tunisia,” Sfax-based Austin Hand told Olive Oil Times. In Tunisia, olive oil pro­duc­tion is not mass-pro­duced and is very fam­ily-based and essen­tially a fam­ily event: the more peo­ple, the bet­ter. If some­one can expe­ri­ence this it’s actu­ally some­thing sim­ple that ties in so many aspects of Tunisian cul­ture.”

Among the unique expe­ri­ences Engaging Cultures offers trav­el­ers is the chance to visit olive groves in the Sfax region and par­tic­i­pate in a har­vest dur­ing the win­ter sea­son. An edu­ca­tional intro­duc­tion is pro­vided to the dif­fer­ent olive vari­eties grown in the coun­try and insights into what it’s like to tend an olive grove and how to know when olives are ready to be har­vested.

After a pic­nic lunch at the grove, par­tic­i­pants visit a mill in Sfax to see the extrac­tion process. The reac­tions we’ve had from guests have been very pos­i­tive,” Hand said. Some have said that con­nect­ing and relat­ing to a fam­ily envi­ron­ment through the expe­ri­ence of a har­vest was the high­light of their tour.”

Reserve Familiale Ben Ismail

I think there’s def­i­nitely poten­tial to fur­ther develop olive oil tourism in Tunisia,” he added. It would­n’t take a lot of resources or spe­cial equip­ment. If pro­duc­ers are inter­ested in host­ing trav­el­ing guests it takes only a bit of prepa­ra­tion. It’s a sim­ple aspect of Tunisian life and cul­ture that can be fun and mean­ing­ful for trav­el­ers who want an authen­tic expe­ri­ence. Olive oil tourism is still some­thing we’d like to develop more. But the prob­lem is often tim­ing: we’ve had peo­ple ask for it in the wrong sea­son.”

The ben­e­fits of olive oil tourism can be mutu­ally ben­e­fi­cial. For the vis­i­tor, it offers an oppor­tu­nity for edu­ca­tional and cul­tural exchange, and the chance to explore new land­scapes in less-known but visit-wor­thy regions of the coun­try. Meanwhile, for pro­duc­ers, it rep­re­sents a sup­ple­men­tary source of income in a sec­tor that’s sub­ject to the unpre­dictabil­ity of weather pat­terns, and could also result in new con­tacts and busi­ness oppor­tu­ni­ties.

This new Tunisian tourist prod­uct is still in a very nascent stage and chal­lenges to its devel­op­ment include insuf­fi­cient infra­struc­tures like roads and hotels in olive-grow­ing areas and lim­ited con­nec­tions to pub­lic trans­port. But with the nec­es­sary invest­ment, olive oil tourism has the poten­tial to attract vis­i­tors inter­ested in food tourism while also pro­mot­ing high-qual­ity Tunisian olive oil.

Tunisia is steadily recov­er­ing from the 2015 ter­ror­ist attacks in Sousse that dev­as­tated its tourist indus­try in recent years, and olive oil tourism is one small but sig­nif­i­cant way to offer vis­i­tors a new expe­ri­en­tial travel expe­ri­ence that’s a move away from sea­sonal mass tourism. Olives are one of the coun­try’s biggest (and most exported) nat­ural resources that can also poten­tially lure a new kind of tourist.


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