Star Wars Stormtroopers march on Tunis as part of innovative tourism campaign

The Associated Press

FILE - In this April 23, 2010 file photo, American actor Mark Hamill who played Luke Skywalker in the George Lucas Star Wars saga poses with a figure of the movie, C 3 PO, before the screening of "Star Wars V-The Empire Strikes Back," as part of the Jules Verne Festival in Paris. After months of carefully guarded secrecy and endless Internet speculation, the cast of the latest incarnation of the space epic, "Star Wars: Episode VII," was unveiled Tuesday, April 29, 2014, on the official "Star Wars" website by Lucasfilm and the Walt Disney Co. The "Episode VII" cast is a mix of fresh faces, up-and-comers and established names, including veterans Harrison Ford, Hamill and Carrie Fisher. (Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere, file)

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By PAUL SCHEMM and BOUAZZA BEN BOUAZZA, Associated Press

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Two dozen white-clad Imperial Troopers and other Star Wars characters marched Wednesday down a stately, tree-lined avenue in Tunis — a site where activists once fought riot police during the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions.

The empire was not striking back against the poster child for Arab democracy — just an innovative campaign to encourage tourists to return to this sunny desert-and-beach nation in North Africa.

"We came here to Tunis to help save the Star Wars sites in Matmata and Tozeur and convince people to return to Tunisia," said Ingo Kaiser, head of a Star Wars fan club in Europe, referring to the movie sets that are slowly being covered up by sand in the Tunisian desert.

He wore the khaki overalls and large helmet of the two-legged AT-ST machines that battled rebels in the forest of Endor in the 1983 film "Return of the Jedi."

A huge screen broadcast scenes from the Star Wars films as the thronging crowds snapped photos of the costumed Star Wars characters.

"It's the first time such an even has happened in Tunis, it's really impressive," said Asma Souissi, a 19-year-old student. "It opens up new horizons for Tunisia."

After long-time President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in 2011, Tunisia was rocked by labor unrest, terrorist attacks and political assassinations. That devastated Tunisia's key tourism sector, which contributes 7 percent to the country's GDP and employs 400,000 people.

So the Tunisian National Office for Tourism teamed up with the country's new Star Wars fan club to stage the country's its first Star Wars encounter. Fan clubs from Europe took part in Wednesday's parade and screenings of the Star Wars films will take place at the desert movie sets over the next few days.

"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.

The campaign began with Tunisia's own video of Pharrell Williams' popular "Happy" song featuring Star Wars characters dancing around Tunisian tourist sites and the 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.

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. Tourists can even stay in the Sidi Driss hotel in Matmata where Skywalker grew up.

New sets were built for the 1999 "Phantom Menace" film as well as its 2002 sequel. The seventh episode in the Star Wars franchise is expected next year but it is not filming in Tunisia, apparently due to concerns about stability. Some scenes are now being shot in Abu Dhabi and the cast was announced to great fanfare on Tuesday.

The Tunisian tourism industry nearly collapsed in 2011. In the past few months, there has been a return to stability and a renewed effort to bring back tourists, but the 6.2 million arrivals in 2013 are still 9 percent less than 2010.

"This event will give a boost that Tunisian tourism really needs — it is something new and a sign of opening up to the outside," said travel agent Rene Trabelsi, who is involved in the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the Tunisian island of Djerba. Restrictions were recently eased on Israelis seeking to make the trip.

"It's our first convention and we will see if we can make it annual," said Ameur Abderrahman, director of Tunisia's year-and-a-half-old Star Wars fan club.

The campaign also involves an effort to save one of the sets, which is being engulfed by a sand dune. A crowdsourcing website seeks to raise $188,000 to clear away the dune and restore the fictional settlement of Mos Espa from the 1999 film.