In a land of growing violence, of nefarious extremists gratuitously shooting up villages and murdering innocent farmers and workers, it seems an unpromising prospect — tourism in Algeria?
But a small miracle has happened. Having abandoned Algeria in 1992 at the start of political troubles which have since claimed 100,000 lives, European lovers of the desert, eternally captivated by its mystery and its allure, are venturing back to this remote Sahara outpost. For the killing fields are in the north. Tamanrasset is in the south, far away in the heart of the vast Saharan desert.
"They're finally back," says Ahmad Hamdaoui, a tour operator and chairman of the local association of tour operators. At the end of the 1980s an average of some 15,000 foreigners came here yearly. In the 1990s they dropped to a few hundred.
But since last October, when the mild season begins, nearly 8,000 tourists chiefly from Germany, Italy, Switzerland and France have booked in, bivouacking in the desert, spellbound by the magnificence of the Hoggar and Tassili mountain ranges to the south, or the Djanet landscape to the east.
"We've been impatiently waiting for tourists to come back for nearly 10 years," said Abdelkader Hiri, owner of a caravanserai for drivers coming in overland from Tunisia to the east: "The violence in the north frightened off foreigners."
But the desert aficionados seem to have curbed their queasiness since it dawned on them that the violence has not penetrated down here, where no political murder has been recorded since the bombings and shootings began pitting Islamic extremists against government security forces.
"We had problems persuading tourists, especially the French, but now they've taken the plunge," said tour operator Brahim Darmena.
Algeria's relationship with France has been historically both close and uneasy. France was the colonial power in Algeria, withdrawing only after a protracted and bloody war of liberation in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The number of chartered flights arriving here from Europe has increased sharply during this last winter season, and next winter's program is already in hand, with direct flights between Lyon in France and Tamanrasset.
Local satisfaction is widespread and visible. "Everybody is gaining from this, it's like a kind of resurrection," said Mustapha, who runs the community's most popular arts and crafts boutique in a street in the center of town.
Relaxed-looking visitors stroll around in search of souvenirs, while the tough knights of the road who brave the Sahara routes by automobile check with four-wheel drive agents for spares to replace the parts that did not survive the rigors and ruggedness of the Hoggar Mountains.
Abdelkrim leads his three dromedaries adorned with saddles surmounted by Touareg crosses. He's in a bit of a hurry because he's late for the departure of an eight-day camel expedition into the Hoggars. "We're going to have to get used to the European way of doing things again, they're always in such a hurry," he says with a broad smile. — (AFP, Tamanrasset)
by Marc Pondaven
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)