13 December 2012

Algeria: Sahel Instability Hurts Local Desert Tourism

Algiers — A dramatic drop in tourist bookings may force dozens of Algerian travel agencies out of business.

Sahel instability is having a negative impact on Algeria's economy, with the tourism sector suffering the most.

December is usually a strong month for travel agencies, given the popularity of the desert as a winter holiday destination.

But fewer than 650 tourists visited Tamanrasset province this year, a 60 per cent drop since 2011. And some 80 travel agencies may have to close their doors.

"This situation is a result of the significant decline in foreign tourists during the last ten years, due to security conditions experienced by Algeria. It is also due to the further deterioration of the situation in the Sahel," the head of the Tamanrasset tourism agency association, Azzi Addi Ahmed, said on December 4th.

The closing of a number of the most attractive tourist locations in the Hoggar Mountains and Tassili exacerbates the problem. These popular destinations have been subject to stringent security measures.

The Directorate of Tourism for the province of Tamanrasset has informed all tourist agencies that the decision to close some resorts for security reasons would remain in force.

Askram, located 80 kilometres north of the town of Tamanrasset, will stay open. This region is frequented by tourists who seek to spend New Year's Eve enjoying the view of the last sunset, and contemplating the dawn of the first day of the New Year in the desert.

According to National Union of Travel Agencies (SNAV) president Bashir Djeribi, the crisis in northern Mali had a major impact on desert tourism in Algeria.

"It led to a decrease in the number of both foreign and local tourists by about 60%, and turned the Tassili and the Hoggar regions into isolated areas," Djeribi said.

The Ministry of Tourism has been trying since 2005 to promote desert tourism and rely on it as an essential resource for the national economy - particularly for regional development in the south.

It is not just security concerns that are impeding the strategy's success. Administrative problems often prevent foreign tourists from obtaining proper authorisation to go the southern desert zone.

The financial toll of the tourism decline is being paid not just by travel agencies, but also by the local Touaregs who work as desert guides.

"There is no other way to earn a living in this area; the whole region lives off trade that flourishes only with tourists,"Mohammed tells Magharebia.

"But now, with the decline of foreigner tourists, we are forced to exercise other activities, illegal ones sometimes. We are risking our lives and those of our families in order to earn a living," the Touareg travel guide said.

He explained, "We do not want that this type of activity nor wish it for anybody because risks in the desert are big, but there is no other solution."

"While waiting for the return of tourists, there is no other way to earn some money except through this activity," he added.

This situation forced some travel agencies owners to request subsidies from the state to save them from bankruptcy.

For its part, the government promised to evaluate the problems presented by the agencies owners.

During a meeting with representatives of travel agencies on November 27th, the state secretary in charge of tourism, Mohammed Amin Haj Saeed, said he would submit a proposal to the government to simplify the procedures for foreigners seeking tourist visas for southern Algeria excursions.

Tamanrasset province senator Massoud Qmama has also suggested compensating travel agencies for their losses.

"The tourism sector has been going through a stagnation period for more than five years. This began when tensions started flaring up in the Sahel," he said.

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