TIMIMOUN, Algeria (Reuters) - Saharan sand dunes stretch to the horizon at this oasis town of red clay where visitors can ride camels with Tuareg nomads and sleep on dunes under the stars.
Timimoun should be easy to get to, but it isn‘t. It offers few comforts after a long, arduous journey. But those few tourists who make it here value its remoteness.
“Only a few tourists are here compared to Morocco -- which is very good,” said Marene Nordal from Norway, enjoying the isolation 1,200 km (750 miles) southwest of the capital Algiers.
Local people are less appreciative of their region’s “undiscovered” cachet.
They want more hotels and better transport links, and say Timimoun’s isolation reflects a wider failure to promote the cultural and scenic glories of Africa’s second largest country.
“The more tourists we get the better because it will boost the local economy,” said M‘hamed Asmiti, 63, who runs a handicraft shop in Kali, 30 km (20 miles) from Timimoun.
“Tourism could reduce unemployment. One tourist feeds 12 people here per day,” said tourism operator Mustafa Djebaili.
Algeria receives just 1.4 million visitors annually and most of them are Algerians back from France on holiday. Neighbors Tunisia and Morocco each welcome 6 million foreigners a year.
The lack of travelers is testimony to Algeria’s long neglect of a sector that remains one of world tourism’s undiscovered gems.
Algeria offers magnificent Roman and Islamic sites -- and excellent beaches -- just an hour’s flight from Europe yet villages like Timimoun lie undisturbed.
The town plays host to an annual festival to mark the birth of the Prophet Mohammed, when thousands of desert-dwellers draped in colorful robes converge on Timimoun and outlying villages for a week of feasting and revelry.
At this year’s event in March, turbaned men shot ceremonial muskets and charged, on camels, in a blur of flapping robes across dunes bearing flags on ornate standards.
Just a handful of tourists saw the spectacle, a glimpse of a region of Algeria far removed from the Mediterranean north where al Qaeda-aligned groups stage sporadic suicide bombings.
“It is the most beautiful desert in the world,” said Austrian Stephanie de Windish. “People are very warm and the music is simply great. There is no danger at all.”
The kidnapping in neighbouring Tunisia in February of two Austrians by an Algeria-based group of gunmen caused few jitters among the tourists in Timimoun.
“I feel safe here. And terrorist attacks are everywhere now -- in London, in Madrid,” said the Norwegian Nordal. “The problem here is infrastructure. We need a minimum, at least hot water. Anyway, if you are here it is not for luxury.”
Algeria does not lack the means. It earns $1.5 billion a week from oil and gas sales and for years has proclaimed its intention to develop tourist infrastructure.
But nothing much seems to get done, thanks in part to Soviet-style red tape that hinders private enterprise.
“TOURISM MAY REPLACE OIL”
Algeria toyed with mass tourism in the late 1960s after winning independence from France, but its socialist government soon lost interest as oil revenues grew. Algeria’s sub-standard hotels became the butt of travelers’ horror stories.
A descent into political strife in the 1990s pushed Algeria further off the beaten track. Now, because oil creates few jobs, the nation of 33 million says it is making a determined push to rescue the sector and raise levels of service.
The task is big. Timimoun should be readily accessible by air from Europe but its airport is closed, although quite why local people cannot explain. So visitors fly into Adrar more than 100 km (63 miles) away after changing planes in Algiers.
Officials dismiss the idea that the proud Algerian is incapable of waiting on tables or greeting guests with a smile.
Djebaili, of Gourara Tours, also points to infrastructure as a major drawback.
“Our key problem here is lack of good quality hotels. It is a real problem. The second big problem is transportation. There is no airline service from Algiers to Timimoun.”
Prices are steep. Transport from Paris, for example, can cost 700 euros ($1,092), several times the price of a similar excursion to Morocco.
Creature comforts are few. State economic dominance helps curb competition from the private sector.
“For Algerians to visit Timimoun, it’s very expensive. The government should review prices,” Soufi Abdallah, a handicrafts shop owner.
“You know what? Tourism may replace oil if we take care of it.”