Tourists are beginning to trickle back into Algeria's southern Sahara desert, encouraged by the efforts of the authorities to bring seven years of violence to an end.
Since the beginning of the year some 2,000 Europeans have ventured into the desert on tours starting from the towns of Tamanrasset and Djanet, tourist ministry official Salah Mouhoub told AFP.
With its rugged red peaks, its dunes and its ancient inscribed stones, the region round the Hoggar massif and the Tassili dunes used to be a favoured destination for lovers of the outdoors.
By the end of the 1980s, more than 12,000 holidaymakers were coming here each year. The influx dried up abruptly with the beginning of a bloody campaign of violence by armed Islamic fighters in 1992.
Around 100 tourists, most of them French, were killed in attacks by the extremists who have brutally murdered over 100,000 civilians.
While there were never any attacks in the Sahara region -- the Islamists have been active mostly in the north of the country -- tourists stayed away from the desert, dealing a heavy blow to the local economy and especially to local Tuareg vendors.
Early this year, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika offered an amnesty to Islamic fighters and many turned themselves in. Encouraged by these moves towards peace, tourists are slowly edging back in.
The authorities are keen to entice them back and boost the local economy. "Twenty-five percent of the nomad and sedentary population here can live off tourism," the mayor of Tamanrasset Mokhtar Zounga said.
The tourist ministry recently organized a trip for twelve travel agency representatives and several journalists, during which officials pledged to make trips here easier.
All of the visitors said they wanted to come back but added that better air links were needed if tourism was really to take off.
"When we can get directly into the south, we'll start trips here again," said Genevieve Lecoq from the French agency Pedibus.
"We would like to organize trips to Algeria but we still don't have guarantees for air travel," said Pierre Shwartz from the Point du Jour agency.
Responding, tourist ministry official Salah Mouhoub said that until there were direct air links with the south, arrangements would be made for connecting links in Algiers which should not include night stay-overs.
Meanwhile for tourists traveling with recognized tour groups, it will be easier to get a visa, said the prefect of the area round Djanet, Mohamed Oubah -- (AFP).
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