World's Most Controversial Destinations
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Why go: Mediterranean beach resorts, fantastic desert scenery, and some of North Africa's best-preserved Roman ruins, including El Jem, the largest coliseum outside of Rome; the Antonin baths at Carthage (pictured); and Bulla Regia, an ancient city of underground courtyard houses, paved with mosaics. The troglodyte desert houses of Matmata doubled as Luke Skywalker's home in the first Star Wars film; and the desert wadis near Tamerza served as a backdrop for The English Patient. The old medina of Tunis now has guest houses, theaters, art galleries, and restaurants geared toward Tunisian yuppies eager to rediscover their roots.
Why not go: An ally in America's "war on terror," President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali has cracked down on Islamic fundamentalists and shepherded the emergence of the Arab world's largest middle class, comprising 80 percent of Tunisia's 10.1-million-strong population. But the price of prosperity and political stability has been the loss of liberties, in particular freedom of the press and the right of free association. According to Amnesty International, opposition journalists are said to be monitored, harassed, and sometimes beaten, and political dissidents disappear into countrywide secret prisons.
Experts say: Despite surface calm, and a history of few terrorist attacks, there was a worrying development last February when members of a group calling itself Al Qaeda Islamic Maghreb kidnapped two Austrian tourists near the Algerian border and released a tape warning Westerners not to travel to Tunisia "for leisure at a time when our brethren are being slaughtered in Gaza by the Jews with the complicity of Western states."
If you go: The Tunis-based agent Atlantis Voyages specializes in guided and independent travel for small groups of Americans and has a roster of academic guides. The company rents SUVs with or without a Tunisian driver. Solo off-road travel is not recommended, especially near the Algerian border (Tel: 216-71-784-555; www.atlantis-voyages.com).