Wildly, naturally beautiful, with hundreds of miles of Mediterranean coastline, mountains that look like Swiss Alps and endless desert, Algeria was a drawcard for tourists to North Africa. But not anymore. Alice Fordham reports from Beni Isguen
Regional violence batters Algerian tourism industry
BENI ISGUEN, ALGERIA // From the top of a tower at the high point of his village, tour guide Brahim Maarouf looks out over a valley where rich, green palm groves flourish among mud-built houses and four other citadels nestle between rocky cliffs.
"Take a photograph," he says, imperiously.
It is coming up to sunset in Beni Isguen, one of five oasis villages inhabited by the Mozabite ethnic people in this valley in central Algeria, which it was once the busiest time of the day for Mr Brahim.
Some days, hundreds of tourists would arrive in buses to see the dramatic scenery and weird, mud architecture. But this changed earlier this year in the aftermath of the French intervention in Mali, with which Algeria shares a long border.
The situation was exacerbated by February's attack by an Al Qaeda offshoot on the In Amenas gas installation in Algeria's east, in which at least 37 foreign hostages were killed, including 10 Japanese.
"We used to get 30 to 40 Japanese people at a time," said Mr Brahim. "We got along fine." Now there are only three or four foreign visitors on a typical evening.
Algeria, the largest country in Africa, is wildly, naturally beautiful, with hundreds of miles of Mediterranean coastline, mountains that look like Swiss Alps and endless desert.
Oil rich and not relying on tourism for money, the country never worked very hard to promote itself as a tourist destination, but people came nonetheless, drawn to the unique sights and customs of villages like Beni Isguen.
Here, between the high plateau of the middle of the country and the wild, sandy dunes of the south, the land rises up in rocky, pinkish hills and an ancient irrigation system has kept the date palms lush for centuries.
The attraction of this particular valley, as the Mozabites will tell visitors, is not just the landscape but the people. Part of Algeria's substantial Berber minority, they are members of the heterodox Islamic Ibadite sect and their communities are enclosed not just by the high walls that surround them but by strict rules and customs.
Women wear a voluminous white covering, usually exposing only one eye, while men swagger in low-slung, pleated trousers. Houses are built without windows, light coming from skylights, so no one's privacy is invaded, and goods are only sold by auctioneers designated by a group of village elders who wear white woollen shawls.
"The thing that can strike a visitor is the way that we are keeping with traditions, and the ways that we have found to live in an old city now," said Hajod Brahim, a high school principal who was chatting with his friends in the market square, just after the nightly auction.
But, he added, "tourism is down - there were lots of tourists, much more than now''.
Although Beni Isguen is in the part of the northern African republic where the hydrocarbon wealth lies, the industry is not labour-intensive and few people find work in oil and gas installations. So in Beni Isguen, and the larger local town of Ghardaia, the tourists were a significant employer.
"Business is about half what it was before," said Farida Babaamer-Hadj Aissa, owner of the Tiny Tours travel agency in Ghardaia. "It's because, I think, people are listening to the French journalists."
Media coverage of the uprising in Tunisia and then, much more violently, in Libya, she said, had convinced people that North Africa was all too frightening to visit.
"It's not dangerous," Mrs Babaamer-Hadj Aissa said.
The In Amenas attack was an anomaly, she argued, comparing it with the recent bombings at the Boston marathon in the United States.
She remains optimistic about the future and, with the help of an interest-free government loan, is planning to build a new hotel.
She has been in the tourism business for 24 years, through a bloody civil war in the 1990s and periodic upheavals, and is used to the ebb and flow of visitors to a place where change can come swiftly and unpredictably.
The tourists that make it here seem to enjoy the attention lavished on them by hoteliers and restaurateurs who badly need the business. In the Maison Traditionelle Akham, a hotel on the edge of Ghardaia, a recent evening's entertainment offered traditional music and dancing while patrons feasted on whole roasted sheep washed down with tea poured and repoured with the customary local flair.
Tamar, an Algerian doctor who lives in France with his French wife and son, was among those enjoying the evening. It was his first time in the region. "I'm Algerian, and I don't know the south of the country - it's a shame," he said.
"I am so happy," said his wife, Benedicte, for whom the trip was a 40th birthday celebration. "The human attitude to foreigners - I thought that here I wouldn't be welcomed nicely, but it's not true."
She would recommend to anyone to come to Algeria - as long as they are careful.
For their next stop, they were headed even further south, to the oasis of Timimoun. "I want to see the sand dunes!" she said.