The first time we meet “Star Wars” hero Luke Skywalker, he stands alone in the sand, looking wistfully into the twin suns lighting up his home planet of Tatooine. Director George Lucas created this otherworldly scene in the sparse deserts of Tunisia, and “Star Wars” has been part of the North African country’s identity ever since. With the currently filming “Star Wars VII” in the news this spring, Tunisia is pushing to revive its faltering tourism by promoting itself as a must-see for franchise fans.
After the first “Star Wars” premiered in 1977, the filmmakers returned to the Tunisian desert for four more films from 1977 to 2005. The latest reboot, directed by J.J. Abrams, has been filming in Abu Dhabi and is rumored to be planning a shoot in Morocco.
It isn’t just the “Star Wars” producers who have abandoned Tunisia. Since former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted, tourism in Tunisia has plummeted thanks to political unrest, and though it’s on a slight upswing, numbers are still about 9 percent below their pre-uprising highs, according to the Associated Press.
To combat these sagging numbers, the Tunisian National Office for Tourism has partnered with a local “Star Wars” fan club to promote the nation’s place in the “Star Wars” universe. In March, they produced a Tunisian-based video set to Pharrell Williams’ hit “Happy” that brought in just shy of 1.8 million hits on YouTube. Subtitled “We Are from Tatooine,” the video features C-3P0 and other “Star Wars” characters showing off filming locations. On Wednesday, the tourism board filled the streets of Tunis with dozens of people dressed as “Star Wars” characters, from Boba Fett to a host of Imperial Storm Troopers.
Han, Luke and Leia might be gone, but there are other attractions for diehard “Star Wars” fans. “We did this campaign to take advantage of these sets, which are unique in the world — the only sites from the movies remaining,” Zied Chargui, director of the National Office of Tunisian Tourism, told the Associated Press.
The abandoned sets from 1999’s “The Phantom Menace” and 2002’s “Attack of the Clones” are still visible in the Tunisian desert. A decade of time in the harsh climate nearly destroyed the set of the iconic Lars Homestead, but a successful fan campaign has rescued the rapidly decaying site of Luke Skywalker’s childhood home. Interior shots of the homestead were filmed some 300 kilometers away in Matmata’s Hôtel Sidi Driss. The hotel fell into disrepair and obscurity for years, but has been restored as an attraction for “Star Wars” fans.
Drawing visitors to a remote desert seems like a daunting challenge, but to quote Han Solo, “Never tell me the odds.”