NOUAKCHOTT — The Saharan sand dunes are more barren than ever in Mauritania as tourists have deserted this North African desert nation following attacks blamed on Al-Qaeda last year.
The number of visitors plunged 60 percent in the 2007-2008 season to 29,000, according to the country’s tourism ministry, and hopes are not high for the 2008-2009 season which got underway last month.
The brutal fall has forced the government to plan a “count-attack” to lure tourists back and save the budding industry which employs 45,000 people and brought the country 31 million euros (39 million dollars) last year.
The plan entails stepping up promotional trips for travel writers and marshalling friends of the country to talk it up.
“We’ll even go door-to-door in France and Europe to rehabilitate the image of our country and explain that it is and will remain a safe destination,” the country’s top tourism official, Cisse Mint Boyda, told AFP.
In recent years the country had become increasingly popular among French trekkers, but the Christmas day 2007 murder of four French tourists in the southern town of Aleg by Mauritanians said to be linked to Al-Qaeda started a downward spiral that shows no sign of stopping.
The killing of three soldiers in Atar, Mauritania’s top tourism destination, several days later sent shudders through the industry.
A travel warning by France and the cancellation of the celebrated Paris-Dakar auto rally — which ran through the Mauritanian desert — for security reasons were further blows.
But Mint Boyda insisted that security fears are overblown.
“We are not any more at threat than other Maghreb countries. On the contrary, the security measures taken by the government are sufficiently reassuring,” she said.
But attacks have continued, with Al Qaeda claiming an incident in September that left 11 soldiers and their guide dead.
The August military coup ousting Mauritania’s first democratically-elected president since independence in 1960 may have done little to reassure tourists.
For hotel operators the government tourism promotion effort cannot come soon enough.
In the top tourist region of Adrar, hotels are operating at just 20 percent of capacity and have cut back on staff, industry representatives say.
“Chinguetti is dead, Atar and Ouadane as well, the region has been hit by a severe disaster,” said Sylvie Lansier, a French hotel operator in Chinguetti, which became a focal point of Islamic culture after it was founded around the 12-13th century to serve caravans crossing the Sahara.
Instead of the 40 to 60 tourists they would normally expect in the first week of November they welcomed just four.
“It’s a real catastrophe and we have no real hope of a rebound at the moment because of the country is a victim of a campaign of bad lies,” she said.
Mint Boyda also believes the country is getting a bad wrap.
“We’ve suffered from a noxious and unjust media overexposure against ‘Destination Mauritania’,” she said.
Atar tourism operator Mohamed Elmoustapha Cheibani downplayed the threat of terror attacks.
“The Adrar is a natural fortress, a real rampart against any terrorist infiltration,” he said. “All it takes to make area inaccessible is to close two passes in the north, which the army has done.”
He also dismissed the view that the coup had hurt tourism, saying the putsches in 2003 and 2005 had little impact on visitor numbers.