Last November was Tunisia's third Les Dunes Electroniques, a music festival founded a year after the ISIS-claimed terror attack in the eastern coastal resort town of Sousse.
Before the attack, Tunisia had been a popular choice for package holiday tourism, offering sandy beaches and relatively cheap decadence. But after the 2015 shooting – which claimed the lives of 38 people, 30 of whom were British – tourism took a nosedive. Visitor numbers fell by 25 percent in 2015, while revenue from tourists dropped by 35 percent. But with enough time elapsed for memories of the attack to fade, those numbers are now back on the rise.
"Even though it greatly affected our country, we showed a strong resilience in adapting, and managed to upturn what was a tough situation in just four years," explains Jaiet Wahida, director of the Tunisian Tourist Board. "We finished 2019 with 9 million foreign visitors – an increase of 76 percent compared to 2015 – generating €1.7 million in revenue, an increase of 29.2 percent compared to 2018."
Les Dunes Electroniques, a two-day big room techno marathon staged in the locations used for Star Wars' Mos Espa and Tatooine landscapes, is one of the events vying for the attention of these tourists from across Europe, Africa and Asia.
Arriving in Tunisia last November, we were driven to the festival site from the nearby resort town of Tozeur as the sun sank behind the towering dunes in front of us.
Almost as soon as we arrived, a mini sandstorm kicked off, swooshing fine grains across the whole site. Walking around instantly became a lot harder: you'd blindly stumble into a wall of golden dust, guided only by the sound of techno ahead of you, while trying to avoid bumping right into stragglers wearing Stormtrooper or Darth Vader masks.
The festival was centred around one big stage in the middle of an open area, next to a load of white stone igloos – like the ones in Tatooine – and a smaller stage, both of which played European-style tech house. Thirty of the country's best DJs – the likes of Ghassen Ghazouani and Hazem Berrabah – were there, as were globally-renowned acts like Ibiza regulars Apollonia and Luciano
Think DC10, think Studio 338, think a sparser, less manic Star Wars-themed Elrow, in the garden of Luke Skywalker's actual house, and you're some of the way there.
As the night went on, things got blurrier. I remember being in someone's car, then walking over a huge sand dune to take part in what I think was some kind of fireside ritual, but may well have just been a load of people hanging out near a fire.
The next thing I knew I was being woken up outside Luke Skywalker's actual house, where the festival team had positioned their camp. Apparently I'd had too much fun and passed out there at around 4AM. With the midday heat, no phone battery and the festival still going strong around me, it was an experience I won't soon forget.
The real lure of Les Dunes Electroniques, though, isn't partying like you would at a British festival, but its "once in a lifetime" appeal. You'd never imagine yourself dancing to Ibiza residents in the middle of a Tunisian desert, surrounded by ecstatic dudes in Darth Vader masks, because it's not really an experience offered anywhere else.
"Promoting events like these is massively important for our tourism at the moment – it's why the Tunisian National Tourist Office backs several events throughout Tunisia, like the Carthage Film Festival in Tunis, the Carthage Jazz Festival, the Sicca Jazz Festival and the Tabarka Jazz Festival," says Jaiet Wahida. "In the future, our target is diversification, so we're currently developing things like eco-tourism in the north of the country and expanding on how to attract big international film productions, like Star Wars."
As Jaiet points out, Tunisia's three other international festivals are all jazz-based. So Les Dunes Electroniques – which was sold out in 2019 – is serving another important purpose: giving Tunisia's dance music fans what they can't get elsewhere.
"Les Dunes Electroniques is an international festival, but it's still mainly for Tunisians, who make up 90 percent of the crowd," says Matthieu Corosine, director of the company behind the festival. "Our production team is mostly Tunisian, our business partners in the company are Tunisians and French, and our contractors and suppliers are also based locally."
But in terms of tourism, events like these are beginning to coax in a crowd younger than the traditional package holiday demographic – those looking for experiences they can't find in other holiday destinations, or even at other festivals.
And for good reason: Les Dunes Electroniques is a one-of-a-kind kind of place.