Robbery in the Dunes
Violence against Sahara tourists:
background information and strategies for a
pragmatic security management.
By Harald A. Friedl
Adventure tourism in Central Sahara is a young, fast-growing market. It is a new and important source of income for the regional Tuareg population. The enormous growth of travel markets- mainly without any regulations- already shows its first negative social and ecological consequences. Initiatives for sustainable tourism were stopped at the start by the kidnapping of tourists in 2003. Nevertheless, this crisis presented an opportunity to reform tourism in the Sahara by stressing high-price tourism in order to achieve quality tourism. According to experience, this well-informed clientele deals in a more pragmatic way with security risks and contributes more to regional added value. Therefore, it plays an important role in the long-term stabilization of the region. This is the most effective prevention of social crises.
The first boom of Sahara tourism with the Tuareg
In economically, ecologically and socio-culturally fragile
regions of Central-Sahara, such as Southern Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Niger etc.,
desert tourism has developed in the last twenty years and has become an
alternative source of income. The nomads' need for money is growing because the
traditional structure of economy, such as nomadic breeding, trading with
caravans and horticulture, suffers due to the pressure of changing conditions
and growing problems. Change of climate and desertification of soil, rapid
population growth and unemployment such as socio-political change are only some of these severe alterations. At the same time this new form of adventure-tourism which is close to nature and authentic meets a growing demands (Popp H. 2001). At the end of the 80ies the introduction of charter flights in the south of Algeria, which was at that time the most important destination of Sahara tourists, led to a boom in tourism of 15,000 organized tourists per season (Grégoire 1999).
The other side of this success was a growing burden on protected nature and cultural sites in the form of garbage, irreparable damage to prehistoric cave-paintings and growing theft of artefacts by tourists. The establishment of an international centre for responsible tourism was decided on at the international conference for tourism about 'responsible alternative tourism' in Tamanrasset. A short time afterwards, civil war in Algeria flared up and stopped tourism in the Sahara of Algeria.
In the southern neighboring country Niger, where the biggest part of the population lives, the charismatic leader Mano Dayak (1996), who is well-known in France, succeeded in initiating a similar dynamic. Due to worse connections with European travel-markets and therefore higher prices, tourism remained modest with approximately 3000 organized tours in the Sahara of Niger. Initiatives to increase the quality of this 'adventure-tourism' through the expansion of educational structures were destroyed throughout several years by the outbreak of the Tuareg rebellion in 1991 (Le Berre 1999).
New tourism in the Sahara- a rebellion with different means?
The Tuareg- rebellion which lasted from 1991 to 1997 was mainly supported by 'Ishomars' . These are nomads uprooted by draughts in the 70ies and 80ies, who had followed Ghaddhafi's call to Libya and had worked as mercenaries. Experiences made there essentially coined the new self-image of this young social class of Tuaregs, who tried to achieve their demand for a bigger share of the national 'development cake' for the Tuareg population. They accomplished this through organized force after their return to Niger in 1990.
It was typical that the relatively successful rebellious movement split up in numerous front lines which even fought each other (Grégoire 1999). This inner discord of the fraction of rebels was an essential reason for the achievement through of a generally acknowledged peace-treaty. With the official ending of the rebellion in 1997 Rhissa ag Boula, the most important leader of the rebels and former colleague of Mano Dayak, was appointed minister of tourism. At the same time many former rebels discovered tourism as their chance to use for profit their all-wheel-drives, which had partly been acquired as loot. Soon numerous new foundations of agencies in the regional capital Agadez followed, while Rhissa saw his most important job as presenting Niger as safe country for travelling (Friedl 2000). That is how a typical situation developed for tourism in Niger for the following years:. Although the region Aïr-Ténéré is the most attractive Sahara area in Niger, repeated isolated incidents on tourist groups were recorded and the European clientele was presented with the picture of a peaceful Sahara in which it was safe to travel.
On the one hand this strategy to make the risks taboo corresponded totally with the topic of safety as promoted by European travel agencies before the terrorist attack in New York (Romeiß-Stracke 2003, S. 151 ff.). On the other hand this strategy of veiling and playing it down resulted from the complex relationships and dependencies between former rebels, the new heads of agencies, the political Tuaregelite and Tuareg population. Mistrust between the Tuareg-population and security organisations mostly coming from the South hampered the fighting against crime. That is why people prevented any cooperation with the rebellious military and defended 'their' bandits for a long time.
The government authorities were also suspicious of ex-rebels integrated in security organizations. Some hunts for bandits through the 'FNISS' , a Tuareg unity for safety in the Sahara founded after the end of the rebellion, stopped because of insufficient supply of vehicles and petrol. Some ex-rebels wanted to see calculated tactics of the Tuareg-critical army in this: In this way inability can be imputed to integrated rebels. Enforced military security of the region with regular troops faithful to the government, can be imposed as a countermove.
Safety in the Sahara- end of an illusion?
Today prevailing crime in Niger as well as in other regions of Central Sahara cannot be concealed as a disappearing relict of the rebellion. It is more an expression of a long-lasting and fundamental social change within the population. As a result, three types of culprits can roughly be distinguished:
1) criminal ex-rebels, who were excluded after the end of the rebellion voluntarily or involuntarily from being accepted in regular unities and who continue with their lucrative procurement technique as 'selfemployed Sahara pirates'.
2) younger persons who are uprooted as a consequence of rapid, general modernization and decline of values due to the rebellion, therefore tend toward crime. The rise of this form of delinquency is worldwide, especially in social fringe areas, as a consequence of unemployment, impoverishment and lack of perspective. With this, tourism plays an important role as a creator of new desires.
3) People who neither profit from the result of the peace treaties after the rebellion, nor from blooming tourism therefore attack travel groups. They are determined to cause damage or act out of revenge. Old conflicts also fall into this category (Friedl 2001). Another typical problem of modernization of pre-industrial societies can also be seen here where traditional methods of solving conflicts have lost their function and are frowned upon. New methods, however, are only developed in the beginning and are not implemented. The prevailing insecurity can finally be felt by the population as economic disadvantage and that is why they collaborate more and more with the authorities. This makes the arrests of some important criminals possible. A fourth and completely new group of offenders became active for the first time in February 2004. Most likely this is the very group of people who is responsible for the kidnapping of 32 European tourists in 2003 in the Algerian Sahara and who kept the German tourist group imprisoned for 48 hours in January 2004 in Mali. This group of culprits probably fled because of the recent anti-terror measures of Algerian, Malinesian and American military from Mali through Niger into the Chad, where they are said to have been put out of action for the most part (Mounir 2004). This listing shows that the Sahara, like most regions in
the world, has lost its 'innocence' concerning absolute (travel) safety, due to basic economic, sociocultura and political changes (O.A.S. 1997). It was not until the terror attack in New York that this social reality, convincing but for the 'dream '-industry unpleasant, came into the consciousness of western tourists (Romei§-Stracke 2003). The period of grace for organizers of Sahara travels, however, ran out with last year's kidnapping.
4. The Sahara kidnapping trauma: Culprit, victim and beneficiary of a media spectacle. In the Algerian South the renaissance of Sahara tourism started with the political relaxation through the election of Bouteflika to the presidency of Algeria in 1999. In the following year, 160 Algerian tours were already offered in France (Popp H. 2000). With the establishment of direct charter flights the number of visitors rose to 8000 all inclusive tourists in 2002. Numerous individual travelers were not counted. As a
countermove, the number of travel agencies in Tamanrasset rose to 70. With this, massive competition for relatively few clients did not hold back from methods which hurt the market like price dumping as in Agadez. At the same time, problems which had already threatened the continued existence of Sahara tourism in the 80ies, repeated themselves: massive ecologic burdens of the most attractive sites, the destruction of rock engravings and paintings and systematic theft of archaeological artifacts (Meier 2002, Popp D. 2002). In trying to find a political and organizational solution to sustain Sahara tourism, the regional association of agencies, UNATA , set first steps (Friedl 2003), which were destroyed by the second large crisis of Algerian Sahara tourism: Within the first months of 2003 many individual travel groups( 32 people altogether) were independently kidnapped. The first group, consisting mainly of Austrians, was 'freed' on May 12th, the second group could only be found in Mali and brought to safety after an officially demented pay of ransom by the German government. According to official and in media- spread diction, the culprits were adherents of the Algerian fundamentalist terror-cell 'GSPC' under the leadership of a certain Abderrezak le Para alias Tarek Ibn Ziad, who was blamed for threatening the rally Paris Dakar in January 2004 (Dakar 2004).
For a long time the media suspected a certain Mokhtar Belmokhtar as would-be wirepuller of the tourist kidnappings and they called him an ally of Osama Bin Laden and held him responsible for threatening the rally Paris- Dakar in Niger in January 2000. This smuggler, who is well-known to authorities, is surprisingly enough a kind of 'Robin Hood of the desert' for the people as the German Tuareg ethnologist Georg Klute reports (Johnson 2003). It is a verified fact today that the kidnappers of both groups have been in constant touch. Apart from this, numerous indications and contradictions feed the urgent suspicion that adherents of the Algerian military have staged both kidnappings. This is why those Tuaregs who had participated in the search for the kidnapped people, still cannot understand how it was possible to hide 32 people without any visible traces
and how, on the other hand, it was possible that they 'surprisingly' were able to be found far away at the Malinesian border. This is especially surprising because of the fact that the kidnappers always communicated with satellite telephones and thus could have easily been found from the technical point of view.
The advantages which obviously come into being for the Algerian military because of a growing insecurity, cannot be ignored:
1) The unpopular military gains legitimacy for its uncontrollable action against the 'inner enemies'.
2) The military leadership profits through moral and material support from the side of the Americans, who are in an 'anti- terror- war', e.g. through the delivery of satellite pictures.
3) Furthermore, it is known and in no way surprising that between the different safety apparatus of Algeria (army, secret service etc.) there are massive and hard conflicts over influence, power and financial resources.
4) Mellah and Ruf (2003) wrote: 'The confusing game about the release of kidnapped persons on May 19th (2003, ann. Friedl) illustrates the Algerian power relationships as if in a burning mirror. Information is given, tracks are laid, and connections are suggested- everything is demented again in order to make it impossible to look behind the wall of deception, which organized this information policy consciously and the clans of the military leadership carry out their fights behind it.'
5. Systematic disinformation as recipe for success and threat. For the media and tourist enterprises it would be high time to give up the naive insane belief in clear dividing lines between 'good' state military and 'bad' Islamic terror. On the one hand, easy to grasp and threatening names of culprits such as 'Al Khaida' and 'Osama bin Laden' fit better in short headlines for an information overloaded media clientele, than a carefully balanced analysis of complex and likely
connections (Vester 2001). On the other hand, disinformation plays an omnipresent, democratic-politically highly problematic role for legitimizing dubious measures in all political, economic and interpersonal areas.
• The second Gulf War was started on the pretext that there was proof of the production of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Until today, these deadly weapons have not been found.
• In the run-up to this campaign, the state of Niger was accused of having delivered uranium enriched material. The presented documents proved to be clumsy forgeries, as the US-Government later had to admit (Koydl 2003).
• In January 2000, during the rally Paris-Dakar, the stage to Agadez had to be cancelled because of an alleged threat by the GSPC; The USA had interpreted in pictures of their spy satellites, convoys of vehicles with armed men in the North of Niger as accumulation of terrorists. Actually there was only the extensive hunting group of the Prince Fahad El Houmaidi in the aforesaid area (Kaka 2000).
Right now the US is increasing their presence in the Sahara and in the Sahel, because they consider this region to be new Al-Khaida area of retreat. The US State Department finances the 'Pan-Sahel-Initiative' to fight terror and weapon smuggling for which training camps should also be established in Niger and in Algeria. The newly discovered interest of the USA is based on the fact that 15% of the demand for oil is covered by this region. This value should rise to 25% by 2015 (Pitman 2004). Thus the extensive military measures to 'restore' security take an interest primarily in military and power - political matters, whereas the social state of the population or also the consequences for tourism are ignored. Tourism only plays a subordinate role as seen from the entire economic point of view in the economically affected states of Algeria, Mali and Niger. Tourism is 'only' important for the prevailing group of the population in these distant Sahara regions, the Tuareg nomads.
Subjective Safety and Travel Conduct of Sahara Travellers
How did these kidnappings and single incidents which were noted by the media affect the number of visitors to Niger? It would be naive to expect exact statistical information in African countries. If you get any dates you should keep it with Churchill's maxim where only forged numbers can be trusted. This shows with the
statements of the WTTC concerning the growth of tourism after 11.9.2001, which do not correspond with reality at all (WTTC 2003). Plausible facts can be found with Manzo (2003), who states that the number of all inclusive tourists in Agadez rose from 1999 to 2001 from barely 900 to 4,300 tourists, but went down to
3,000 the following year. The strong growth up to 2001 resulted on one hand from the stabilization of peace, not in the least thanks to the extensive EU help project 'Echo' for integrating rebel refugees and ex-rebels, on the other hand from the increased offer of Niger tours by European organizers. The opening of direct charter flights from
Paris to Agadez in December 1999 made possible the clearest growth. This saved Sahara travellers in Niger the travel to the capital Niamey and, thus, the additional way on the road of almost 1,000 km. The other way round it was less the attack in New York which led to the relatively small set-back concerning the numbers of visitors in the year 2002, but the closing of the airport in Agadez due to necessary repair work toward the end of the season 2000- 2001. Thus, arrivals again were only possible via Niamey. The effects of this burden were shown in the example of the French organizer Croq'Nature (2003), who counted only 188 Niger customers in the season 2000/2001, in the following year only 38 and in season 2002/2003 only 7.
This clearly shows that security does not in any way play an important role as a deciding factor for a trip to Niger. The price of the journey and attainability are, however, far more important. The French clientele had a big advantage through direct connections concerning the arrivals via Paris and concerning the price because of the omission of feeder services compared with German visitors. It was exactly this clientele which reacted particularly sensitively to additional difficulties concerning their arrivals. From this you can draw the conclusion that travelers who are prepared to put up with higher travel barriers like higher prices, longer and more tedious arrivals and less comfort , react in a more tolerant way to 'sudden' security risks and other occurring inconveniences.
The effect of progressive travel information on high-price tourists
The experiences of the author as organizer and leader of travels to Niger for the Austrian firm 'Kneissl Touristik' seem to confirm the formerly mentioned hypothesis.
One has to mention first that the costs of the 3 day tour which was offered includes visa and arrival costs run up to 4 000 Euro. The arrival usually takes place in Niamey, because places for late bookers can only be guaranteed in this flight connection. An essential successful recipe is the extensive care of the groups through the author, who has achieved qualified knowledge through his many years of studies of tourism in the region as well as his many years of working as international travel guide. Special attention concerning individual advice which was carried through per e-mail, telephone and direct contact, is put on all fields of security. Risks are discussed as realistically as possible and stressed according to the personal profile of the customer. Instead of a general proposal to take the malaria remedy 'Malarone', as is suggested by the tropical institute out of jurisdictional reasons, the advantages and disadvantages of a prophylactic are revealed, the realistic probability of infection explained and alternative deterrents are introduced.
The customers get extensive informational material concerning travel security as well as background reports and continued recommendation of literature such as the ones concerning the effects on tourism and, of course, also crime. It was always emphasized that the number of criminal attacks on travel groups in Niger is on the verge of decreasing but that no absolute security can be guaranteed and that, therefore, the purchase of a baggage insurance always makes sense. In addition, measures for minimizing the risk are recommended e.g., not telling a stranger about time and place of travel, not wearing unnecessary valuable things (Friedl 2002; Friedl 2002a) and, in case of attack, not resisting or fleeing. Furthermore, the customers were informed about measures taken by the Austrian travel organization and by the partner enterprise in Niger to minimize the risks. The partner 'Tchimizar Voyages', a small enterprise, was deliberately chosen because the people belong to one of the biggest families there and
have mostly taken part in the rebellion. Therefore, there is a great solidarity attachment between the local 'staff' and the population and through this traditional flow of information people can be warned when risks suddenly occur. This Tuareg agency follows the strategy of economic integration of the population along travel routes by
buying crops from farmers, meat stock from nomads and artefacts from smiths. In oases they demonstratively use community owned camping sites instead of private gardens in order to let the whole community profit from tourism. That is how envy and resentment can be met and the risk of attacks can be reduced. The broad scattering of income through tourism encourages socio-economic stability, which contributes substantially to a general acceptance of tourism and therefore prevents crime. Thanks to this strategy, no Niger customer has cancelled his booking because of security-relevant reasons.
An Austrian travel group was attacked along the planned travel route in 2001 and a tourist vehicle drove onto a mine not too far from the planned travel route in 2003. It is also noticeable that those interested people who decided against the journey gave reasons for their decision exclusively based on the high prices, the long journey there or lack of vacation, but never because of lack of security.
Exclusive customers for exclusive destinations?
The observation shows that, under certain circumstances, massive breaks in booking as they are at present typical after a sudden impairment of the subjectively felt travel security as consequence of massive negative media reports, can be limited by an information policy of punctual, specific and honest information. As a countermove all those enterprises whose marketing consistently uses the clichés of an intact world in the paradisiacal South could be punished by panic-stricken cancellations after the next
Therefore, we can sum up the following hypotheses for Niger:
1) Niger is an exclusive destination coined
a- by relatively intact traditional nomad culture (salt caravans)
b- extraordinarily scenic and prehistoric attractions (such as lonely dunes and the biggest dinosaur discovery sites)
c- by high travel barriers, such as high travel costs, tiring journeys there and little comfort during the tour.
2) All this adds to it that an exclusive, travel and desert experienced clientele is interested in the country. They know the specific circumstances of the travel goal and are willing to put up with particular hurdles, as is confirmed by inquiries by the author.
3) Because of this filter this clientele is also more open towards the political and social reality in the country and more likely to be prepared not to dramatize any risks as a 'sudden' crisis, but to estimate risks realistically as problematic consequences of modernization and globalization.
4) Because of their understanding and their travel experience they are more prepared to take risks which are conveyed in a transparent way and can therefore be calculated and controlled. Therefore they are able to contribute actively to the diminishing of risks (Lepp/Gibson 2003).
5) The imparting of background information about political, social and cultural connections in the region helps to evoke deeper interest in the region and the population and, therefore, a readiness to take more responsibility towards country and people in ecological, economic and social respects.
6) By this cooperative attitude, those customers contribute directly to the support of personal security and therefore wellbeing. Indirectly they contribute to the stability of the region and thus also to the prevention of regional crises.
Preventive measures for people in the Sahara tourist business: Transparency instead of disinformation.
What is the consequence for those in the Sahara tourist industry? Numerous Sahara travel customers reacted with cancellation which caused enormous loss to German and Swiss agencies offering Niger tours. Frequent news from the latest US-engagement in North- and West Africa additionally contributed to the insecurity of Sahara-travellers.
The publication of a detailed analysis of the security situation in Niger by the author in the frequently visited internet forum www.sahara-info.ch (Friedl 2004) contributed essentially to the relaxation of the situation. As people confirmed to the author in numerous positive reactions - it was the first time that the conflicts in Niger were presented to the organizers of travels in a transparent and understandable way. Thus, it became possible to interpret the fear-causing picture of a vague, omnipresent and uncontrollable threat as a socially structured, regionally limitable and realistically controllable risk. In the future, those in the Sahara tourist industry won't be able to help acquaint their customers with the problem of security through progressive information by breaking up the 'media truth' of wild threatening scenarios and scrutinize them as chimeras. They will have to point out the fundamental omnipresence of terrorist risk as well as the utopia of absolute safety. 'Madrid' can happen everywhere again. Agencies can provide the most important contribution for a medium-term improvement of travel security by taking as many concrete measures as possible for active participation in tourist enterprises of the population there. It was clearly shown in Niger that whoever profits from tourism denies support to those who endanger it.
Conclusion: The clearing out of the jungle instead of head into the sand
Despite the US fight against terror, all GSPC-propaganda and seemingly growing crime, Sahara tourism will develop further even if not in the form of linear growth (Kuschel/Schröder 2002). The travel market of the 'post-modern tourist' (Uriely 1997) is so highly differentiated that the thrill of the risk or atmosphere of former terror and the sites of death already lure visitors in the form of 'dark tourism' (Lennon/Foley 2000). On the other hand, the globalization of terror contributes to the fact that today neither skyscrapers and airplanes (New York 2001), nor synagogues (Djerba 2002), nor cafes (Casablanca 2002), nor stations (Madrid 2004) are safe from terror and it is only a question of time until the first virtual world of an adventure-centre, the 'cathedrals of the 21st century' (Opaschowski 2000) will also be pulled back into the
reality of danger. This also shows that when ignoring these criteria a tourism policy on management as well as on marketing level will fail in the long run because of the resistance of the population. Then not only travelling but also life will generally be as dangerous as it was 200 years ago. 'The Chinese word for crisis ' wie-chi' consists of the words ' danger and chance' (Capra/Exner/Königswieser 1992, p. 118). Thus the present crisis of Sahara tourism also opens a chance to break out of the vicious circle 'More of the same'-more tourism, more gain, more freedom- in favour of a lasting development in tourism. Finally, there will be no way past a high-price-policy in favor of quality tourism like in Bhutan for 'critical regions'. Niger could be a model for the Sahara.
Harald A. Friedl is teaching tourism at the University of Applied Science in Bad Gleichenberg und wrote
his doctoral thesis about sustainable tourism development in the central Sahara.
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