Since the administration was toppled in the Arab Spring of 2010, many people in Tunisia have made great efforts to achieve a stable government and economy. Toshio Motoya spoke with Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Tunisia to Japan H.E. Mr. Mohamed Elloumi about the Tunisian government’s initiatives to promote tourism, Tunisia’s major sightseeing spots, and other topics.
(M) Thank you so much for joining me on Big Talk today. I have interviewed two past ambassadors from the Republic of Tunisia, Mr. Elyes Kasri in 2012 and Mr. Kais Darragi in 2017. I went to Tunisia in December 2010 and attended the Japan-Arab Economic Forum. Together with Yasuaki Ono, the former Japanese ambassador to Tunisia who was chairman of the Japan-Tunisia Friendship Association at that time, we went to his Tunisian friend’s home and were served delicious couscous, a famous dish from your country. The Arab Spring broke out soon after that. You invited me to dine at the embassy last December, and I got a chance to speak with Ono again.
(E) Thank you for having me. I was involved in welcoming you to Tunisia back then. I am a career diplomat, and I came to Japan for the first time in August 2011. After being appointed the ambassador, I returned here in December 2018. I’m greatly honored to serve in this position.
(M) How long did you work here during your first stay?
(E) About five years, until July 2016. 2011 was a challenging year for both Japan and Tunisia, what with the Arab Spring and Great East Japan Earthquake. I came to Japan right after the disaster. In such difficult times, I thought it was important to strengthen unity between the two countries. Tunisia began a student exchange program in 1992 and has had ties with Ishinomaki City for some time, which is why the Tunisian embassy actively provided aid to Ishinomaki. Nearly 4,000 people were killed by the tsunami or went missing in that city.
(M) Thank you for your help.
(E) True friends are there to help you when needed.
(M) After the Great East Japan Earthquake, the tsunami caused major damage. Japanese buildings do not collapse easily thanks to strict anti-seismic standards. That’s why it’s better to find a safe place inside during an earthquake, instead of immediately running outside, where there is the risk of falling objects.
(E) Yes, and I’m also impressed by the Japanese dedication to rebuilding after the earthquake. I’ve seen how people in the affected areas are steadily working to revive them.
(M) Does Tunisia have earthquakes?
(E) Not very many. But just like the rest of the world there are climate change risks, including droughts.
(M) Are they caused by global warming?
(E) Yes, they are.
(M) I imagine living in Japan is a shock for someone from a country with few earthquakes.
(E) That’s true, but the Japanese government conducts simulations for earthquakes and other types of emergencies. It also gives lectures to the embassy regarding what to do during disasters.
(M) I enjoyed myself in Tunisia, and I have great memories from my time there. Would you tell us about the best spots in Tunisia so readers can refer to this interview if they decide to travel there?
(E) Yes, of course. Tunisia has a fantastic location, both strategically and geopolitically, in the heart of the Mediterranean. It’s in North Africa just a short distance from Europe. Tunisia is in the middle part of the Maghreb region, also known as Northwest Africa. It has an area about two fifths the size of Japan and a population of approximately 12 million. Tunisia became independent from France in 1956. The official language is Arabic, and many people speak French as well. Arabs are the majority group, mostly members of the Sunni Islam faith. With a coastline of 1,300 kilometers, Tunisia is easy to access from other countries. I’m proud to say that Tunisia is an amicable nation, including our climate and the character of our people. There are four clearly defined seasons, but the winter isn’t very cold.
(M) Tunis, the capital city, was very orderly and attractive. I drove to nearby Sidi Bou Said, a place with gorgeous ocean scenery. I also drove down to El Jem, a town about 150 kilometers to the south with a Roman amphitheater, and Mahdia, a small town on the coast that is a luxury resort.
(E) There’s only about 500 kilometers from Tunis to the southern tip of the country, but we have many wonderful things to offer. The southern region is popular for the Sahara Desert and its oases. Their dates are in season during the winter, and I believe they are the most delicious in the whole world. The Star Wars movies were also filmed in southern Tunisia. Numerous sites are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List: seven Cultural and three Natural Heritage Sites. Cultural sites include the old part of Tunis and the Archaeological Site of Carthage, which is close to the capital city.
(M) I’ve visited the Archaeological Site of Carthage. I was fascinated by the ancient temple ruins.
(E) The hero of Carthage was Hannibal, a famous general from the Second Punic War of the 3rd century BCE. He led his army over the Alps to invade Roman territory. He was eventually defeated, but he caused Rome a great deal of trouble. Tunisian people all revere him as our direct ancestor. I think he was a man of unshakeable conviction, much like yourself. Lots of Japanese tourists are very interested in history and ancient ruins. Tunisia offers many things to enjoy, including couscous and other types of foods, wine made by mixing French and local varieties, and some of the best beach resorts in the Mediterranean. It’s also a unique place because there’s something to enjoy in every season of the year.
(M) It’s been 12 years since my visit, so I imagine it has grown since then. I’d like to go back to that country I remember so warmly.
(E) I hope you will! Tunisia is placing great importance on tourism, which now accounts for 10% of the GDP. I’d be happy to connect you with lots of decision makers in the tourism industry.
(M) That would be great.
(E) COVID-19 had huge impacts on international exchange as well as tourism and other industries, but finally we are coming out of the pandemic. I hope for Tunisia to move forward positively. And if you decide to enter that market, I think Japanese tourists would love to see an APA Hotel flying a Japanese flag in Tunis.
(M) APA Hotel is starting its overseas business in North America, namely Canada and the United States. We are now unquestionably the number-one hotel chain in Japan, but our share is still low at less than 10%. Many Japanese lodging facilities are single inns rather than chains, which makes it hard to obtain a market share. Our goal is to conclude franchise contracts with and acquire facilities of this type to achieve a 20% share. We are still focusing on enhancing our domestic hotel network with 27 hotels under design or construction today. We opened APA Hotel & Resort Osaka Umeda Eki Tower in February. It is one of the largest hotels in Kansai with 1,704 rooms. We will also open the 2,055-room Osaka Namba Eki Tower in autumn 2024.
(E) I was actually in Osaka yesterday, because we are preparing to have a Tunisian pavilion at the Expo 2025 in Osaka. The whole world will be focusing on Osaka in 2025, and I imagine your hotels in that area – including the two you mentioned – will be full to capacity.
(M) I’m sure they will. We have a high occupancy rate, even now.
(E) All APA Hotels are very close to train stations, so they’re extremely convenient for tourists coming to the Expo from Tunisia.
(M) Location means everything in the hotel business. Sometimes it’s better to purposefully pay high prices for the best location. In addition to the Expo, we are looking forward to the 2026 World Cup in North and Central America. APA Hotel signed a four-year national team partnership contract with the Japan Football Association. The national team enters into these contracts with only one company in each industry, and I feel very fortunate.
(E) The Japanese team put on a great show at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, and I expect they will do great things at the next World Cup, too.
(M) I think so. This partnership is significant because soccer is the most popular sport across the world, and more and more foreign tourists are staying at APA Hotels. It costs a fair amount of money, but I am confident that it will bring sufficient benefits.
(E) Of course, soccer is very popular in Tunisia as well. Forward Issam Jebali is playing for Gamba Osaka from this season.
(M) I look forward to watching him.
(E) Numerous tourism and accommodation facilities suffered a huge blow during the last three years of the pandemic.
(M) Many were closed temporarily, leading to deficits, but APA Hotel kept operating and maintained profitability.
(E) I heard Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called you during the pandemic and asked you to lodge COVID-19 patients in your hotels. That was a patriotic decision.
(M) I was friendly with him because I used to be vice-chairman of an organization working to make Abe prime minister. That’s why he called my mobile phone directly.
(E) I think he was a wonderful politician who made decisive judgments.
(M) I agree, and I miss him a great deal.
(E) What are APA Hotels’ strengths that helped it survive the pandemic?
(M) I think the biggest factor was the success of our membership system, which has more than 20 million members. Members earn points equivalent to 9% to 15% of what they pay for lodging, and they receive 5,000 yen cash back when they accumulate 5,000 points. The businesspeople who are our main customers can write off their accommodation fees, but points and cash bonuses are their own individual rewards. This makes APA Hotel an attractive choice for business travelers. We launched this system with our very first hotel. I’m the first member and my wife, the APA Hotel president, is number two. We built this system that provides benefits to our guests to encourage them to stay with us. “Weapons” of this sort are essential if you want to succeed in business.
(E) You certainly have great foresight. Are you building new hotels or buying them?
(M) We are constructing all of our new hotels in major cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Fukuoka, but we usually acquire existing hotels in other areas with lower demand. The same applies outside of Japan. The Coast Hotels chain builds hotels if they will become valuable investments. Still, in general Tokyo is the most profitable location of all. We focus on areas with convenient public transportation, and we are even our own rival in some areas.
(E) Working for many years in Japan, I’ve seen how different regions have their own economic dynamism. The numbers of people differ greatly in Tokyo and rural areas. The APA Hotel business model makes skillful use of this, and I’m sure other countries can learn from the way you do business in tune with your domestic economy. What is the ratio of Japanese and foreign guests?
(M) Foreign tourists account for 30% and Japanese travelers for 70%. Many Japanese guests patronize us frequently thanks to the point system. Another unique feature is our small yet functional rooms containing large beds, televisions, and other necessary items. Our guestroom TVs are 50 inches or larger.
(E) How did you make these decisions?
(M) I determined all these policies. APA Group isn’t a listed company; my family holds all of the shares. We also focus on owning hotels due to low interest rates. Many Japanese and foreign chains have different companies in charge of ownership, operation, and branding, but APA does all these things itself, which is why we have an ordinary income ratio exceeding 30%. In APA Group’s consolidated financial results for the period ended November 2022, we recorded sales of 138.2 billion yen and ordinary income of 35.3 billion yen.
(E) With that much profit, you must pay a huge amount of taxes.
(M) Yes, the company has paid more than 200 billion yen of taxes.
(E) I heard you started your business from nothing. How did you begin?
(M) My first business was custom housing. Customers paid half up front, which was ideal in that stage right after launching the company, when I didn’t have a lot of funds. Next, we moved into built-for-sale housing. Once that business got on track, we started rental apartment and hotel businesses because we needed depreciable assets as a tax reduction strategy.
(E) You’ve built a great business model from scratch, created many jobs, and contributed to growth in the Japanese society. You are also highly trusted by the government – the prime minister called you and asked for help solving a problem. I hope you will speak about this in Tunisia and other countries. It would also be great for you to give lectures at business schools regarding the APA Hotel model.
(M) I’ve come up with different principles. For instance, it’s better to build a large hotel than many small ones. Being number one is the most important thing of all, because it naturally attracts people, things, money, and information.
(E) Isn’t it hard to stay in the top position?
(M) Once you gain the number-one position, it’s relatively easy to maintain. It’s difficult to turn zero into one, but not so hard to increase from 10 to 11. People often remark that it must be challenging to have so many hotels, but a chain is actually easier to operate than one or two hotels.
(E) What is your future business vision?
(M) I think there is still room for growth in Japan. Our domestic profit rate exceeds 30%, which is higher than our overseas rate of 10%. I want to prioritize our brand power, and I think that a future challenge will be maintaining this at a high level. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(E) I always learn a great deal from you, and I was very inspired by our conversation today. I am vividly reminded of Hannibal as I watch you constantly set ambitious goals and work dedicatedly to accomplish them. Hannibal famously said, “I will either find a way or make one.” That’s exactly what you have done. I hope young people in Tunisia and Japan will read this interview. Neither country is blessed with petroleum or similar resources, but our people are a great resource. I keenly hope to cultivate young people in both countries who can ambitiously move forward and accomplish their objectives.
(M) Thank you for sharing such an interesting conversation with me today.
(E) Thank you, and I hope to see you in Tunisia.
Ambassador Mohamed Elloumi was appointed Tunisia’s ambassador to Japan in 2018. This is the second time that Ambassador Elloumi has served in Tokyo. From Aug. 2011 to July 2016, he was deputy chief of mission at the Embassy of Tunisia in Tokyo. He was a charge d’affaires a.i. from April 2013 to Jan. 2014. Ambassador Elloumi graduated from the High Commercial Studies Institute of Carthage, Tunisia in 1997 and from the Tunisian Diplomatic Institute for Training and Studies. He was assigned from Aug. 2003 to July 2008 to the Embassy of Tunisia in Ottawa, Canada as counsellor. From Oct. 2010 to July 2011, he was a member of the Minister’s Cabinet in charge of the Americas and Asia, and from Jan. 12, 2017 to Oct. 2018 he was deputy director in charge of cooperation with specialized UN agencies and development programs, continuing to serve as a member of the Minister’s Cabinet. In 2016, he was promoted to minister plenipotentiary. Ambassador Elloumi was granted the Tunisia National Order of Merit in Oct. 2013. He is married and has one daughter and one son. He speaks Arabic, French, English, and Spanish. He loves travel, reading, and volleyball.