TUNIS, Tunisia -- 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 in the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions.
The empire was not striking back against the poster child for Arab democracy. It was 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 event has happened in Tunis. It's really impressive," said Asma Souissi, a 19-year-old student. "It opens up new horizons for Tunisia."
After longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in 2011, Tunisia was rocked by labour unrest, terrorist attacks and political assassinations. That devastated Tunisia's key tourism sector, which contributes seven per cent to the country's GDP and employs 400,000 people.
So the Tunisian National Office for Tourism teamed with the country's new Star Wars fan club to stage the country's 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 during 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," Chargui said.
The original 1977 Star Wars was filmed in Tunisia, with protagonist Luke Skywalker's home planet borrowing its name from 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 is not filming in Tunisia, apparently due to concerns about stability. Some scenes are now being shot in Abu Dhabi.
Chargui, the head of the tourism office, said Wednesday's march was only the first in a series of new promotions.
"There are many young Tunisians with many ideas -- and when we finish with Star Wars, then you will see others," he said.
-- The Associated Press