*This article was updated on June 5, 2020 to reflect more recent Covid-19 developments. _______
“If there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.” This is how Luke Skywalker describes his home planet of Tatooine in “Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope.” At first glance, this description befits the desolate landscape of the real Tatooine (usually spelled Tataouine) – the town in Southern Tunisia where the scene was filmed. Yet those who spend a significant amount of time in Tunisia will likely come to reject the sentiment of Luke’s damning assessment.
Visitors to Tunisia find a calm, Mediterranean nation filled with idyllic backdrops, welcoming people, and fascinating history. Just one of Tunisia’s many magnificent sites is the jaw-dropping amphitheater in El Djem, second only to Rome’s colosseum in size and equally well preserved.
In recent years, Tunisia’s tourism industry has begun to capitalize more and more on the Star Wars filming locations to which the country is home.
In recent years, Tunisia’s tourism industry has begun to capitalize more and more on the Star Wars filming locations to which the country is home. The thousands of Star Wars fans who visit each year go away with an enriched understanding of how the country’s culture and landscape shaped the iconic aesthetic of the sci-fi phenomenon.
Much of the refocusing of Tunisia’s tourism policy has been done out of necessity, in response to events of the past decade.
Tunisia’s economy has long relied on tourism, which represents 8 percent of the country’s GDP. Yet that sector was hit with a sledgehammer in 2015, when al-Qaeda affiliated gunmen stormed a museum in the capital of Tunis and a beach resort in the coastal city of Sousse. Around 60 people were killed, the majority of them tourists.
As Al Jazeera reported: “The events that year led to a 25 percent decrease in the number of visitors and a 35 percent fall in tourism revenue.” Following the attacks, tourism-related unemployment and business closures skyrocketed.
The slump has turned around somewhat since then. According to Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP), 2018 saw a 19 percent increase in tourism revenue compared to 2017. Today, there are around 8 million annual visitors to Tunisia, the majority of whom visit Star Wars film sets during their time in the country. Nevertheless, the (largely exaggerated) terrorism fears around Tunisia continue to this day.
If the Tunisian economy was struggling before, its previous problems may turn out to be small fry in comparison with the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic. On March 22, Tunisia became one of the earliest countries to institute a total lockdown, which has since been extended on several occasions. By all accounts, the measures have been successful – the country has 1,087 confirmed cases and just 49 deaths as of June 5.
While lockdown measures may have been successful in tackling the virus itself, the effect on the country’s tourism economy has been devastating. Middle East Eye reported on April 15 that Tunisia is expected to lose around 400,000 jobs in tourism, the country’s second largest industry, as well as $1.4 billion USD in revenue. In a letter to the IMF, Tunisian authorities warned that the national economy will shrink by as much 4.3 percent, the worst economic downturn in seven decades. According to most observers, the $745 million USD the IMF initially agreed to loan to the Tunisian state will be far from sufficient to cover the damage caused by the pandemic.
On March 6, two suicide bombers detonated themselves near the US embassy in Tunis, killing at least one police officer and injuring four other people. All of this comes on top of the earlier jolt that the tourism industry had suffered as a result of the Arab spring in 2011, which is commonly argued to have begun in Tunisia. Today, several western governments advise their citizens against visiting the country.
Adding to Tunisia’s tourism woes, the country has been widely publicized as the nation with the highest per capita rate of ISIS fighters from outside of the supposed caliphate.
Adding to Tunisia’s tourism woes, the country has been widely publicized as the nation with the highest per capita rate of ISIS fighters from outside of the supposed caliphate. Some 6,000 people have allegedly left Tunisia to join the militant group, although the country’s authorities claim the figure is lower.
As Obi-Wan Kenobi explains to Luke, “the force can have a strong influence over the weak-minded,” and perhaps something akin to this explains the ascension of fundamentalism in Tunisia. But it is probably fair to say that the similarities end there.
There is no indication in George Lucas’ sci-fi franchise that imperial holiday-goers are put off visiting Tatooine due to the “Return of the Jedi” and it would be crude to try to crowbar in a clumsy segue between the rise of ISIS and the plot of Star Wars.
After all, considering that Star Wars is the story of a disaffected youth, living a life of frustration in the desert, who is radicalized by a bearded ascetic after an airstrike kills his family, inducted into the violent wing of an ancient religion, and convinced to carry out a terrorist attack against the evil empire that rules over his native land, no obvious comparisons spring to mind.
It is in landscape and cultural aesthetic that similarities between Tataouine and Tatooine can be found. A few days in the region around Tataouine is enough to reveal the depth of the local culture, both Berber (Amazigh) and Arab, that first attracted George Lucas to the region in the 1970s. From the arid landscape, to the architecture, to the morally questionable representation of the local people and their customs, Tunisia has had a far greater influence on Star Wars than Star Wars has had on Tunisia.
The mud-huts and underground domiciles on the planet of Tatooine are a carbon copy of certain traditional Berber dwellings. The transport of Jawas – three-feet-tall humanoids that pick up stranded droids, before selling them on to Luke Skywalker, is clearly based on the commerce of the traveling caravans of North Africa.
The scenes on Tatooine depict a vibrant bartering economy of smugglers, markets, and traveling craftsmen – an orientalist, yet unmistakable representation of the nomadic life of the Northern Sahara Desert.
The scenes on Tatooine, across all the movies in which it appears, depict a vibrant bartering economy of smugglers, markets, and traveling craftsmen – an orientalist, yet unmistakable representation of the Souks, Medinas, and nomadic life of the Northern Sahara Desert.
The town of Tataouine itself is not a prolific Star Wars filming location. “Galactic Backpackers,” as the official Star Wars website calls them, are more likely to be directed to towns such as Matmata, around 79 miles (127 km) north of Tataouine.
Visitors to Matmata are encouraged to avert their eyes downward. Those who oblige find the town replete with magnificent troglodyte dwellings, dug deep into the earth, with open-air courtyards feeding off into passages and living quarters, burrowed into the sandstone to keep out the oppressive heat. This architectural style, so familiar to Star Wars fans, derives directly from the Berber culture of the region.
What is more, modern Tunisian Berber communities play a frontline role in the growing industry of Star Wars tourism. While many of Matmata’s visitors come because of the movies, they are welcomed into Berber homes to try their cuisine and to learn about their way of life. The fantastic Dar Ayed hotel includes in its accommodation package a museum and ample information about Berber culture, as well as tours of local sites.
Today, the number of people who live in traditional underground homes are diminishing, as rural dwellers move to cities and larger urban towns, a process that began under the rule of President Habib Bourguiba in the 1960s and 70s. Yet Matmata still boasts several homesteads of this type.
The most famous of these houses appeared as Luke Skywalker’s childhood home, where he lived with his uncle Owen and aunt Beru in “Episode IV.” The site was used again in “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.” Today, it has been remodeled as Hotel Sidi Driss, which provides tours for both overnight guests and day visitors.
The influence of Berber culture on Star Wars extends far beyond the subterranean Berber constructions such as the Hotel Sidi Driss. Another example is that of the Berber ksour. Ksour (ksar is the singular) are fortified granaries with steps leading down to sprawling courtyards. Ksour, such as Ksar Ouled Soltane, Ksar Hadada, and the Ksar of Medenine, all in the region of Matmata and Tataouine, appeared extensively in “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” as the slave quarters in which Anakin Skywalker toiled as a child.
For Star Wars fans, archaeology enthusiasts, and sun-bathers alike, Tunisia is a welcoming society with a deep and fascinating history.
For Star Wars fans, archaeology enthusiasts, and sun-bathers alike, Tunisia is a welcoming society with a deep and fascinating history, which puts any security concerns into stark perspective.
From the white sand beaches, to the breathtaking Roman sites, to the quaint, winding streets of Sidi Bou Said, galactic backpackers leave with the knowledge that the aesthetic of the planet of Tatooine owes its origins directly to the ongoing traditions of Tunisian Berber communities.
Indeed, Tunisia has given Star Wars far more than Star Wars has given Tunisia.
Author’s note: This is part one of a two-part series highlighting “Star Wars” tourism in Tunisia. Part one describes how “The Force” has given new hope to the country’s tourism industry after decreases brought on by terrorism, revolution, and the current pandemic. Part two details Tunisia’s impressive ancient sites along with its Star Wars scenery, which draw in tourists seeking to explore the world of “a long time ago” and “a galaxy far far away.”
Galactic Backpacking: A Guide to Star Wars Tourism in the Tunisian Desert (Part 2 of 2)