From the open roof of the watchtower, above the maze of narrow streets and sawn roofs, Ghardaïa appears as a tableau of jumbled pastel cubes.
The only hints of modernity are the Tannoy speakers that project from the mud-walled minarets at the top of each hill. Otherwise, we could be looking at a scene from any century in the last 10.
Despite its proximity to Europe and its vast presence on the North African coast, roughly the size of Alaska and Texas combined, Algeria and many of its most spectacular sites are little known to travelers outside its borders.
“Algeria is one of the hardest places in the world to get into and is among the least visited,” says Andrew Farrand, senior researcher for North Africa at the Atlantic Council, a foreign affairs think tank. “Of the two million official tourists who arrive each year, most are members of the Algerian diaspora coming home to visit family. Only a handful are foreign visitors.”
For those willing to negotiate the bureaucratic hurdles to get here, Algeria is undoubtedly one of the most rewarding destinations you can reach via a short-haul flight from mainland Europe. Today, vitally, it is also considered safe and relatively stable. Most foreign governments advise against travel only to their borders with Libya and Niger.
Legacy of French colonialism
The origins of Algeria’s anonymity lie in the recent past. Between 1830 and 1962, it was the most prized possession of the French empire. Independence came in 1962, but only after a bloody eight-year war between Algerian insurgents and French settlers that claimed between 400,000 and one million lives.
“France’s barbaric efforts to destroy Algerian culture have generated deep anti-Western sentiment,” says Adel Hamaizia, a researcher at Harvard University. “As a result, the newly independent country was very motivated to rebuild and protect its religious and cultural identity.”
In the 90s, as tourism to the locals Morocco and Tunisia rose, Algeria was mired in what its people refer to as the “Black Decade,” when an Islamist insurgency sparked a bloody and protracted civil war. Anti-government protests toppled the administration of former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April 2019.
Development of tourism
A legacy of this domestic upheaval is a prevailing attitude toward foreign visitors that is, if not truly hostile, at least indifferent. The visa application process is byzantine. Tourism promotion is non-existent. During my trip to the country in the spring, the only guide I could get my hands on was a second-hand Berlitz pocket guide published in 1990.
The government’s disinterest in tourism, many observers argue, is due to the economic dominance of hydrocarbons. Algeria’s oil and gas sector accounts for 20 percent of its GDP. Tourism, on the other hand, represents just 0.1 percent.
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“The oil curse infects everything,” says Farrand. “The industry gives the Algerian state the money it needs to avoid the hard work of developing more complex sectors like tourism.” According to recent reports, the increase in oil and gas prices as a result of the war in Ukraine has caused Algeria to exceed its export targets for the first half of 2022 by 70 percent.
Wonders hidden in plain sight
However, the rewards for coming here are many. Algeria is in many ways a giant hiding in plain sight. In the strip of fertile land that embraces its Mediterranean coast are historical cities such as Constantine, Oran and the capital Algiers. Ancient Roman outposts such as Djemila and Timgad (both UNESCO World Heritage Sites) are among the best-preserved archaeological destinations in North Africa. To the south, in the interior of the Sahara, the dune seas of the Great Ergs collide with the sandstone massifs of Hoggar and Tassili n’Ajjer.
“We’ve had historic interest this fall, but you can still go days in Algeria without seeing another tourist,” says Omar Zahafi, whose tour company, Fancyellow, caters almost exclusively to foreign visitors. “When we visit the Roman ruins and customers ask why there aren’t other people there, I like to joke that I reserved the site especially for them!”
Few places embody the tension between Algeria’s insularity and its tourist potential like Ghardaïa, the ancestral home of the Mozabites, Algeria’s fourth Berber tribe. A sprawling oasis town 380 miles south of Algiers on the Trans Sahara Highway, it’s a place where Algerian life is more traditional.
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It is early afternoon in El Atteuf, one of the five ksours, or citadels of the hills, which are collectively known as “the Pentapolis”. Once separate entities, the five walled cities have long since merged into a labyrinthine conurbation that winds along the parched valley of the M’Zab River. (Ghardaïa is both the name of the largest citadel and an unofficial abbreviation for the entire region.) The French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir once compared it to “a Cubist painting, beautifully constructed.”
Like most places in Algeria, Ghardaïa is best explored with a guide. Indeed, in the ksours themselves, one is mandatory. The rules set by the religious councils, which uphold a strict form of Ibadi Islam, allow outsiders to enter only at certain times of the day, and only in the company of a local chaperone. Some married women wear de heck, a white piece that wraps the body and head, leaving only one eye exposed. Motorized transport is prohibited. Garbage is still collected by donkey.
My guide, Hassissane Hadjsmael, a butcher with a mischievous air, leads us through the quiet streets. In the middle of the day, when most of the valley’s inhabitants are napping, the lanes are populated only by groups of shy children.
The architectural consistency of the citadel is the result of ancient standards of design and decoration. Up close, you can see that the walls are painted in clay, then dotted with palm leaves to deflect the sun’s heat.
Hadjsmael leads us through a low door to a model interior that is now preserved as an unofficial museum. Inside there is a quadrilateral pillar with an open roof. The recesses on either side are adorned with carpets. Most of the houses in the old towns have a similar footprint, although with some concessions to the 21st century. “My place is similar,” says Hadjsmael. “But I have a big plasma TV.”
Change is slowly coming to Ghardaïa, but it is coming. In the surroundings are palm trees, groves of dates whose fruits were once the backbone of the local economy. Now, their former summer houses are being converted into boarding houses.
In one of them, I meet travelers from Ohio sitting in a Berber tent set up in a shady courtyard. A musician, casual in a dark green Tuareg turban, plucks an oud under a fruit-laden olive tree.
“You can tell a lot of people in Algeria are eager to share their country with the world,” says Katelyn Jarvis, an investment adviser in Cincinnati. “Almost every interaction we’ve had has resulted in an invitation to visit people’s cities or share a meal in their homes.”
Tourism is in its infancy here, but hospitality is instinctive.
“I recently got my license to start hosting foreigners,” the guesthouse’s owner, Rostom Labchek, tells me. “I hope more of them will come.”
IF YOU GO
Most tour companies can help you apply for a tourist visa, which you will need to enter the country.