The Tunisian National Office for Tourism has teamed up with the country's own Star Wars fan club to stage its first Star Wars encounter in the country. Participating fan clubs from Europe will feature the parade in the capital and then film screenings and events in Tunisia's deep south, home of the sets from several Star Wars movies. by Paul Schemm and Bouazza Ben Bouazza
Imperial stormtroopers are set to march through Tunisia's capital as part of a new effort to attract tourists and burnish the image of this North African country.
Their parade ground is downtown Tunis' stately, tree-lined Bourguiba Avenue, where young activists fought squads of riot police in 2011 during their Arab Spring revolution.
Wednesday's parade is not a case of the empire striking back against the poster child for Arab democracy in North Africa, however, but part of an innovative new campaign to bring tourists back to this sunny nation.
"We did this campaign to take advantage of these sets which are unique in the world -- the only sites from the movies remaining," said Zied Chargui, director of the National Office of Tunisian Tourism and one of the brains behind the new efforts to attract tourism that go beyond subway billboards in European capitals.
The campaign began with Tunisia's own video of recording artist Pharrell Williams' wildly popular "Happy" song, featuring Star Wars characters dancing around Tunisian tourist sites and the sand-covered desert movie sets.
The video has been viewed 1.7 million times since it was posted in March and was tweeted by Williams himself.
"It created a global buzz which makes us very happy," said Chargui, saying the idea was to remind the world that Tunisia's has more attractions aside from beach resorts. "We will try to keep working on this idea up until the release of the 2015 film," he said referring to the seventh episode of the franchise expected next year.
The original 1977 Star Wars was filmed in Tunisia, with protagonist Luke Skywalker's home planet borrowing its name of the nearby town of Tatouine. New sets were built for the 1999 "Phantom Menace" episode as well as its 2002 sequel but the new film will not be filming in Tunisia, apparently over concerns with stability. Some scenes are now being shot in Abu Dhabi.
After President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in 2011, Tunisia was rocked by labor unrest, terrorist attacks and political assassinations, which devastated the key tourism sector.
In the past few months, there has been a return to stability, and a renewed effort to bring back tourists. Contributing 7 percent of GDP and employing 400,000 people, the sector is considered key to saving the country's battered economy.
Tourist numbers have been gradually rising since the industry nearly collapsed in 2011 but the 6.2 million arrivals in 2013 are still 9 percent less than 2010. The latest campaign seeks to publicize desert tourism and, of course the Star Wars sets.
"It's our first convention and we will see if we can make it annual," said Abderrahman Ameur, the director of Tunisia's year-and-a-half-old Star Wars fan club who worked with the tourism office on the campaign. "We met, we talked about what we could do and we did some brainstorming."
Folded into the campaign is an effort to save one of the sets which is slowly being engulfed by a roving sand dune. Started by a local tourism organization, the campaign includes a crowdsourcing website seeking to raise $188,000 to clear away the dune and restore the fictional settlement of Mos Espa from the 1999 film -- near the Tunisian town of Tozeur.
Chargui, the head of the tourism office, said that the campaign is only the first in a series of new promotion plans coming from his office.
"There are many young Tunisians with many ideas and when we finish with Star Wars, then you will see others," he said.