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In a village far, far, away, 'Star Wars' stirs debate

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Exteriors of the Lars homestead, the dried canyons where R2-D2 wanders alone, and the cliff where Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi look out onto that "wretched hive of scum and villainy" - Mos Eisley spaceport - were shot around the dried salt flats of Chott el Jerid near the Algerian border. Still, Tunisian authorities prefer to emphasize the country's historic heritage, such as its ancient Roman ruins; Kairouan, the fourth-holiest city in the Islamic world; and oasis towns on the northern border of the Sahara.

While there are no statistics for Matmata, tourism in Tunisia overall has grown dramatically, from fewer than 1 million foreign visitors in 1976 (the year before "Star Wars" was released) to 4.8 million in 1999. Tourism revenue has mushroomed from $86 million in 1976 to $1.3 billion in 1999, when tourism ranked as Tunisia's second-largest industry, after textiles.

Those involved in the trade in Matmata stress that the Berber cave homes pockmarking the hilly town drew visitors long before being immortalized on film. "When I saw 'Star Wars,' I thought, 'It's extraordinary, it's beautiful, I'm on the moon.' But it was difficult for me to recognize my own hometown," says Nejia Bouabidi, head of the Matmata tourist office. She concedes, however, that most tourists who drop by do ask about the film.

Formerly an agrarian community, Matmata today is heavily dependent on tourism. Residents work as guides, in hotels and restaurants, as souvenir vendors and camel renters. Ms. Bouabidi says at least 1,000 tourists visit every day, spending an average of 70 dinars ($48), in a place where she estimates the average monthly income is 200 dinars ($137).

"This village doesn't have any other work. Without tourism, we couldn't continue," declares Maher Ghrairi, a plump teen decked out in a Mets cap and Harley Davidson T-shirt. "All villagers love 'Star Wars,'" he says, although he hasn't seen it.

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