Algeria is probably one of the richest countries to visit in the world. It does not only host the vast majority of the Great Sahara Desert, covering over 80 percent of the country’s total surface, but it is also home to an incredible coastline, and most importantly, to a wealth of centuries-old historical artefacts dating back all the way to the Berber, the Phoenician, the Roman, or the Muslim Almovarid and Fatimid empires.
If similar features have provided neighbouring Morocco and Tunisia with a bomb of tourism, with the number of tourists pre-Covid reaching 13 million in a single year to the former; Algeria only received two million by the end of 2019. Nadine Benmokhtari, who has lived his whole life in Algiers, says that if you visited Algeria “you would not see a trace of tourists, only Algerians”.
Why would a country with so much tourism potential remain unseen by the eyes of the world? The response is multi-faceted, and it mostly has to do with the political history of the country. However, to start, it was not always like this.
Caught between wars
“In the past, there were tourists, and they came from all parts of the world,” professor Yahia Zoubir tells EUobserver. Zoubir is a professor of international relations and international management, as well as a researcher in geopolitics at KEDGE Business School. During the 1970s and 1980s, he used to work as a tour guide at the Algerian Tourism Agency (ATA) as he finished his studies. He would remember that, at the time “cruise ships would arrive at the port of Algiers full of tourists, and we would pick them up and take them to the Roman ruins and nearby spots”.
At that time, Algeria was almost just like all its neighbours: developing from scratch an industry that required great investments in a type of infrastructure that had never interested the colonial rulers occupying them. In Algeria, the effort was even greater.
While Morocco and Tunisia acquired their independence by 1956, Algerians suffered one of the longest and most violent independence struggles in history, ranging from 1954 up to 1962: an eight-year war that left Algeria physically and morally destroyed.
While during the 1970s and 1980s tourism started flourishing, putting the country on track with the rest of the developing world; by 1988, the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN)’s misgovernance sparked a movement of protests that would force the government to allow democratic elections in 1991. The electoral defeat of the FLN by political Islam would lead to a cancellation of the electoral results and the start of, once again, a years-long armed struggle — now internal — and to an emergence of terrorist activity throughout the country.
For tour guide Omar Dib, who has worked for eight years in the tourist sector in the areas of Tamanrasset and Djanet, it was mainly the period of the Civil War (1991-2002) that put Algeria’s tourism infrastructure behind.
However, 21 years after the conflict, and having put an end to the terrorist activity that used to endanger foreigners in the country, Algeria is far from the tourist spot it once was and could be. Infrastructure still remains a problem, closely followed by the visa process.
‘There is simply no political will to open the country to the rest of the world’
For most nationalities, visiting neighbouring countries such as Morocco or Tunisia does not require any preparatory procedure: they are visa-free for a limited time frame. Other regional tourist spots such as Egypt or Jordan benefit from an eVisa or Visa-Upon-Arrival system. In Algeria, in contrast, almost all nationalities have to apply for a tourist visa: a procedure that is lengthy, complicated, and not always with success guaranteed.
Thanks to pressure exerted by the local tourism sector, which had for years been asking for a facilitation of the process, visas upon arrival have started to be introduced, as part of a new type of visa devoted to those wanting to visit the south alone, says Omar.
Those interested in visiting the desert will now be able to, through the help of a travel agency, easily get a visa for the strict duration of their stay. Nonetheless, the urban areas of the North will remain under the lengthy and bureaucratic conventional procedure.
For Nadine Benmokhtari, a Franco-Algerian artist and professor who requested us to use this pseudonym to protect his identity, the reason behind the government rendering foreign tourism so difficult is part of a political strategy to isolate Algerians from the outside world.
“There is simply no political will to open the country to the rest of the world”, claims Nadine. “After all, when a regime is closed, it is easier to control its society. The fact that the average Algerian does not mix with people from other cultures, renders it more difficult for them to think about their rights, for them to think in complete freedom: opening would risk altering the system”.
Nadine’s view reminds us of the current political situation in Algeria. After a wave of protests in 2019 that sought to challenge the electoral candidacy of Abdelaziz Bouteflika for the fifth time, the regime only evolved towards a phase that, according to professor Mouloud Boumghar is “much more authoritarian than before”.
This alleged unwillingness to open the country to the world in order to isolate the Algerian population from the outside is not new. Professor Yahia Zoubir talks about the role of the Islamists during the last four decades, who they claim were saying that “we do not want to be like Tunisia, Morocco or Egypt, with their tonnes of tourists, especially Westerners, bringing their values, their nudity…”.
An important factor here is that Algeria can ignore the economic incentives for tourism because it benefits from a source of rent that makes the country able to neglect all other sectors: oil and gas.
Relieved by foreign rent
Occupying the 11th position in the Worldometer gas-per-country index, and 16th when it comes to oil; Algeria represents one of the most important natural resource hubs for the world. In 2011, when Algeria was finally ready to go back to tourism after recovering from the civil war, oil and gas resources accounted for 98 percent of the country’s exports, with the hydrocarbon sector representing up to 45 percent of total GDP, according to the International Monetary Fund.
As professor Zoubir already put it 20 years ago in his paper on ‘The Political Economy of Tourism in Algeria’, “Algeria’s hydrocarbon wealth spared the country from relying on sectors such as tourism for national development”. This, coupled with an already existing aversion towards opening the country following religious and political goals, would create the recipe for a poor enhancement of Algeria’s tourism potential.
However, calling it a day here would mean missing a fundamental element, says professor Zoubir, that of reciprocity.
A stance for reciprocity
At the end of the day, the argument of oil and gas reliance is not enough. Although it is true that the sector still represents a major part of Algeria’s economy, and even more after the war in Ukraine made the EU consolidate Algeria as its long-term strategic gas supplier; the fossil fuel era will soon have to come to an end. But that alone will not solve the tourism problem, professor Zoubir explains.
“Even if Algeria did not rely on natural resources, Algerians would still have this nationalistic pride, and say: why should I not require a visa from you when you require a visa from me?”. That’s the Algerian mentality, according to professor Zoubir, and not only from the side of the government, but from the people’s side too.
Algerians, alongside many other Global South nationalities, struggle to get visas to visit foreign countries. Professor Zoubir himself, who now lives in the United States, tells EUobserver that when he tried to invite his niece and nephew to visit him abroad, both their visa applications were declined in spite of having all documents in order.
It’s the same or worse when it comes to Europe, he claims, assuring us that some people in Algeria even pay for others to stay awake all night in order to get an appointment in the visa section of the French Embassy. “They pay a lot of money without a guarantee that they will eventually get the visa. For an Algerian, the money involved in this visa process is almost a month’s salary”.
Traumatised by an independence struggle that, to our day, has still not seen full closure and haunted by a world order that continues to restrain people from the Global South easy mobility while claiming universal rights at home; Algerians say “You guys treat us like this? We are also going to treat you like this”, argues Zoubir.
So, to the question of why tourism in Algeria remains unseen to the rest of the world, finding an answer requires understanding the country’s history, the material and economic conditions that have allowed it not to be a priority, the political motivations of an unpopular government, but also and maybe most importantly, understanding that rights should be reciprocal.