LAMANTIN ISLAND, Niger (Reuters) - Joel Sauze was just readying his new eco-lodge in southern Niger for its first visitors as soldiers in the capital blasted their way into the presidential palace and arrested the country’s leader.
Reinforcing a view of Niger’s perils, the country’s latest coup could not have come at a more unfortunate time for the campsite-owner from France, who is attempting to play his part in restoring confidence in the local tourist industry.
It unnerved some of his guests, who delayed their visits to the island hotel in rugged bush 150 kilometers (90 miles) south of Niamey, the capital.
But he is undeterred. The coup leaders have overseen a swift return to calm in Niamey, and Sauze is banking on the fact Nomadic rebels and Islamist-linked gunmen and kidnappers have made no-go areas of much of Niger’s north in his effort to lure visitors to his island retreat, in the south.
“We are trying to create something original, somewhere original,” Sauze said at his lodge, sitting among baobab trees on a rocky outcrop protruding from the slow-moving Niger River.
Far from sites such as the spectacular dunes and mountains of the vast, northern Agadez region, Sauze concedes the harsh bush-country of the south may lack allure.
It could not compete with the teeming game parks of East Africa, even though elephants do occasionally play in the water nearby. The park is home to buffalo, antelope, a handful of lions, and an impressive collection of birds.
Nonetheless, he says, “(Niger’s) south is interesting and unknown.”
It is also safe.
In a country that only recently started attracting serious investment in oil and mining after years relying on donors for about 50 percent of its budget, the Frenchman’s 150,000 euros ($204,000) outlay also shows small ways Niger can make a living.
Chronic food shortages are spiking again this year after failed rains: aid workers say these will leave over half the population hungry and at least 200,000 children severely malnourished.
“We need to promote the south for now as it is less vulnerable to security fears,” said Bolou Akano, managing director of the Niger Center for the Promotion of Tourism. “We can promote the south while we wait for the main product, the desert, to reopen.”
Estimates of the value of tourism vary from around 4.3 percent of Niger’s GDP including travelers and businessmen from the region to 1.7 percent, a figure that Akano said represents visitors for leisure alone.
But he added this does not take into account the indirect impact tourism has on Niger’s artisans, who number around 600,000 and account for around 25 percent of GDP.
European tourists have flocked to the desert in northern Niger for years to visit nomadic camps, ancient ruins or camp under the stars. But the once-steady flow of 5,000 or so who annually took charter jets directly to the region has dried up since Tuareg nomads took up arms in 2007, turning its spectacular dunes, mountains and oases into a battlefield.
The rebels have officially laid down their weapons, but the region remains strewn with mines and bandits and is plagued by the threat of kidnappings — either by al Qaeda or local groups with links to them.
Five Europeans are currently being held by al Qaeda’s North African wing, which has taken advantage of porous borders and weak states to operate in Mauritania, Mali and Niger. Last year al Qaeda killed British tourist Edwin Dyer, one of four European travelers taken hostage near the Niger-Mali border.
Analysts say the threat has been exacerbated by the payments of millions of dollars in ransoms to free hostages, including Austrians, Germans and Canadians previously held.
“Due to the security situation in the north of the country, tourism has virtually ground to a halt. The international clients have stopped coming,” said Akano.
Several countries have imposed warnings on Mali and Niger’s north, including the United States which “recommends against all travel” due to the threat.
Expatriate residents are also restricting their movements, with fewer venturing far from Niger’s capital: “We don’t want to be the low-hanging fruit,” said one diplomat.
The Paris-Dakar rally, whose following helped build the fame of Niger’s Air mountains and Tenere desert, now has to take place in South America. Point Afrique, a French charter company that has spear-headed tourism in West Africa, has flown only a handful of flights into Agadez this year.
Travel agencies once based in the north have moved south, where they now sell trips to the “W” National Park, which Niger shares with Benin and Burkina Faso and hosts Sauze’s lodge.
Instead of safaris promising Africa’s “big five,” tourists are offered the chance to float down the Niger River at sunset, see West Africa’s last giraffe populations, or visit bustling markets in the capital.
The European Union has trained rangers and helped build roads in the park and is trying to encourage more investors like Sauze to build lodges or hotels in the thick bush.
But Akly Joulia, a veteran Agadez-based tour operator, says the priority must be to make the north safe again.
He argues its isolation, especially the lack of water and re-fuelling points, should make it easier for the state to crack down on insurrection, and a revitalized tourism industry would bring invaluable jobs and money to the former rebels.
“The thing that is special, that Niger can sell, is the (north),” he said. “That is what is spectacular.”
Editing by Sara Ledwith