By Jemal Oumar
Built seven centuries ago, the historic city of Chinguetti is Mauritania’s top tourist destination. For decades, the city lured visitors from around the world. But with the death of four French tourists at the hands of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in December 2007, the number of visitors dropped off sharply.
About 7,000 people worked in tourism in the city, and they were impacted heavily by the decline following the al-Qaeda kidnappings, according to Mohamed Mahmoud, a tour operator and head of the Mauritanian Association for Sahara Guides.
“The majority of Chinguetti residents were harmed since they rely on tourism. They are either tourist guides, owners of hotels, camel renters, vendors of dates and artefacts, foreign currency exchange dealers, or makers of traditional Mauritanian meals,” Mahmoud added.
Located 580km northeast of Nouakchott, Chinguetti is the oldest city in Mauritania. It proudly hosts the country’s oldest libraries and heritage manuscripts. The city also prides itself on its time-honoured buildings, with their distinct stone architecture, not to mention its geographic location amidst boundless seas of sand.
The city relies on the tourist trade as the backbone of its economy. But only a few hundred tourists venture into a city that once drew thousands. Operating hotels dropped from seventy to a mere seven.
In the year after the four French tourists were killed, nearly 150,000 tourists were expected to arrive, according to Mohamed Soumbara, the tourism ministry representative in the province. The terrorist attack, however, caused the number of visitors to drop to 9,600.
Soumbara said that the figures fell in the following year as well, with only 1,077 tourists arriving. The number continued to drop, reaching an all-time low of 173 tourists for the 2011 season. Some attributed the decline to a French foreign ministry travel warning for Chinguetti and neighbouring provinces. Nearly 90% of tourists were French citizens, while the rest were Belgian, Spanish and German.
Soumbara said the warning exaggerated fears about the presence of AQIM. “The Adrar Plateau is safe and is encircled by an unprecedented security ring fence,” he commented.
Tourism seasons, which normally extend from October to April, are no longer booming since November 2009, when AQIM kidnapped two Spanish tourists, according to Abderrahman Houdy, manager of the Zarga hotel.
“Before that date, I used to expect teems of tourists whom I was in touch with. However, they told me that because of the warnings issued by the French foreign ministry, they decided to cancel their trip to Chinguetti. For hotel owners, that meant substantial financial damages,” Houdy added.
Alika Nakachi, a French tourist, said she was on her fourth trip to Chinguetti and that she was not dissuaded by the warnings of the foreign ministry.
“It is true tourism dropped in this city,” Nakachi added. “But as a tourist, I do not see Chinguetti as a danger zone, because all Al-Qaeda operations were not perpetrated within the area designated by the foreign ministry as danger zone. Personally speaking, I feel no danger at all in this city.”
Margeritta, a tourist from Iceland visiting Chinguetti for the second time, told Magharebia that she did so despite the warnings. She added that she enjoyed the city’s stone architecture and the buildings with geometric shapes and special decorations that stand as an icon of distinct creativity.
“I also enjoy the hospitality of Chinguetti, Mauritanian tea and the vastness of the desert, which gave me a sense of time,” Margeritta added.
French tourist Jean-François Monnet said he visited Chinguetti as a tourist, but he also owns a hotel in Mauritania. “I have visited Mauritania regularly every year for the past ten years. I truly feel that tourism started to drop four years ago when al-Qaeda killed four French tourists in the heart of Mauritania,” Monnet said.
“I do not feel unsafe here in Chinguetti, despite the warnings of the French foreign ministry, which should have ascertained the security situation before declaring the province a danger zone. It is very safe around here. Fears are uncalled for,” he said.