By Mourad Teyeb
Albawaba.com - Tunis
You can tour the Sahara on a camel, in a Land Rover or float over its oases in a balloon.
Thermal treatment for arthritis is provided at luxury hotels on the desert's edge, where French-trained chefs prepare gourmet meals.
But to Mohammed Essayem, the real achievement in turning the huge desert into a playground will happen next year when an 18-hole golf course is finished outside this ancient oasis of Tozeur.
"We hope to have 27 holes a year or so later," said Essayem, regional director of tourism for the south-western region of Tunisia.
Contrary to widespread belief, there is water under the sun-scorched desert - but one has to find it. And there is no shortage of it in Tozeur, where camel caravans used to halt enroute to Libya and points south.
Now the oasis is a major tourist asset.
There are scheduled flights from Paris and Frankfurt to the small airport outside the town - in addition to charter flights from all over Europe, bringing visitors jaded by beach resorts.
There are 18 luxury hotels in Tozeur as well as several small guest houses and two camping sites. Eight agencies provide sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicles and guides familiar with desert tracks.
The nearby oasis of Nefta boasts three hotels; and Douz, surrounded by sand dunes, has one.
One of the most unusual hotels is in the heart of the Tamerza oasis amid towering rocks, where sun-hungry visitors from northern Europe lie by the swimming pool to have suntan in mid- February and at night watch TV programmes from a dozen countries.
"We have two types of visitors here," said Essayem at his office in Tozeur. "Those are brought for short stays in buses from the coastal resorts for a look at the desert, and those who come directly from Europe for longer stays."
Some wealthier visitors prefer "a real desert experience" with transport, guides and additional staff provided.
At night in tourist encampments, drums roll and pipes shrill in tents equipped with heaters to fight the desert's biting cold.
Essayem attributes the expansion of tourism to the policies of Tunisian President Zine Abidine Ben Ali who, he says, "understood the opportunities offered by the desert."
Thus funds and tax breaks were provided to potential investors at his initiative.
Most hotels have about 100 rooms and are rarely taller than two stories, blending in with the desert scenery and the low houses of ancient "medinas," or old native quarters of North African cities, at the major oases.
The expansion of tourism and hotel construction has had an obvious impact on the lives of the permanent desert dwellers in an area where date production was the main source of income.
Now, said Essayem, tourism in the Tunisian Sahara provides direct employment to 4,000 people and indirect employment - souvenir and carpet shops, guides and drivers - to an estimated 12,000 others.
Tozeur has a hotel school to train waiters and cleaning personnel. Middle managers are trained in Tunis and are usually sent to foreign hotels for additional experience.
French is a required language for hotel personnel and guides, but a number also have learned basic English and a few German and Italian words.
The area's tourist profile was further raised by the filming here of such well-known films as "The English Patient" and "Star Wars."
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )