From the open roof of the watchtower, above the maze of narrow alleys and enclosed roofs, Ghardaïa appears like a rolling picture of jumbled pastel cubes.
The only accents of modernity are the Tannoy speakers projecting 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 northern coast of Africa – 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 to get to in the world and one of the least visited,” says Andrew Farrand, senior North Africa researcher at the Atlantic Council, a think tank on foreign affairs. “Of the approximately two million official tourist arrivals each year, most are members of the Algerian diaspora returning home to visit family. Only a handful are foreign visitors.
For those willing to negotiate bureaucratic hurdles to get here, Algeria is arguably 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 only advise against travel to its borders with Libya and Niger.
Legacy of French colonialism
The origins of Algerian anonymity date back to 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 left between 400,000 and one million dead.
“France’s barbaric efforts to destroy Algerian culture have fueled deep anti-Western sentiment,” says Adel Hamaizia, a visiting scholar at Harvard University. “In the aftermath, the newly independent country was highly motivated to rebuild and protect its religious and cultural identity.”
In the 1990s, while tourism in neighboring Morocco and Tunisia exploded, Algeria mired in what its people call the “Dark Decade,” when an Islamist insurgency sparked a bloody and protracted civil war. Anti-government protests toppled the administration of longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika as recently as April 2019.
A legacy of this inner upheaval is a prevailing attitude towards foreign visitors that is, if not genuinely 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 guidebook I could get my hands on was a second-hand Berlitz pocket guide published in 1990.
The government’s lack of interest in tourism, according to many observers, is due to the economic dominance of hydrocarbons. Algeria’s oil and gas sector represents 20% of its GDP. Tourism, on the other hand, barely represents 0.1%.
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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 spike in oil and gas prices following the war in Ukraine has caused Algeria to exceed its export targets for the first half of 2022 by 70%.
Wonders hidden in plain sight
Nevertheless, the rewards for coming here are many. Algeria is in many respects a giant hidden in plain sight. In the strip of fertile land that runs along its Mediterranean coast are historic cities like Constantine, Oran and the capital Algiers. Ancient Roman outposts like Djemila and Timgad (both UNESCO World Heritage Sites) are among the best-preserved archaeological destinations in North Africa. To the south, in the Saharan interior, the dune seas of the Great Ergs crash against the sandstone massifs of Hoggar and Tassili n’Ajjer.
“We had record interest this fall, but you can still spend days in Algeria without seeing another tourist,” says Omar Zahafi, whose travel agency, Fancyellow, caters almost exclusively to foreign visitors. “When we visit Roman ruins and guests ask why there aren’t other people there, I like to joke that I booked the site especially for them!”
Few places epitomize the tension between Algeria’s insularity and its tourism potential like Ghardaïa, the ancestral homeland of the Mozabites, the fourth largest Berber tribe in Algeria. A sprawling oasis town, 380 miles south of Algiers on the Trans-Saharan Highway, this is where Algerian life is at its most traditional.
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It is early afternoon in El Atteuf, one of five ksour, or hilltop citadels, which are collectively known as “the Pentapolis”. Once separate entities, the five walled towns have long since coalesced into a labyrinthine agglomeration that meanders along the parched valley of the M’Zab River. (Ghardaia is both the name of the largest citadel and an unofficial shorthand for the whole region.) French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir once compared it to “a Cubist painting, beautifully constructed.”
Like most places in Algeria, Ghardaia is best explored with a guide. Indeed, in the ksours themselves, one is obligatory. Rules set by religious councils, which maintain a strict form of Ibadi Islam, allow entry to outsiders only at certain times of the day and only in the company of a local chaperone. Some married women dress haik, a white garment that wraps around the body and head, leaving only one eye exposed. Motorized transport is prohibited. Garbage is always picked up by donkey.
My guide, Hassissane Hadjsmael, a mischievous-looking butcher, leads us through the quiet lanes. In the middle of the day, when most of the inhabitants of the valley are having a siesta, the alleys are populated only by gangs of shy children.
The architectural coherence of the citadel is the result of centuries-old standards of design and decoration. Up close you can see that the walls are plastered with clay, then dotted with palm fronds to deflect the heat of the sun.
Hadjsmael ushers us through a low doorway and ushers us into a model interior now preserved as an unofficial museum. Inside is a pillared quadrangle with an open roof. The recesses on each side are adorned with carpets. Most homes in Old Towns have a similar footprint, but with a few concessions to the 21st century. “My house is similar,” says Hadjsmael. “But I have a large plasma TV.”
Change is slowly coming to Ghardaïa, but it is coming. On the outskirts are the palm groves, groves of date palms whose fruits were once the backbone of the local economy. Today, its former summer residences are being transformed into guest rooms.
In one, I meet travelers from Ohio seated in a Berber tent set up in a shady courtyard. A musician, smart in a dark green Tuareg turban, picks an oud under an olive tree laden with fruit.
“You can tell a lot of Algerians are eager to share their country with the world,” says Katelyn Jarvis, an investment adviser from Cincinnati. “Almost every interaction we’ve had has resulted in an invitation to visit people’s cities or share a meal in their home.”
Tourism is still in its infancy here, but hospitality is instinctive.
“I recently got my license to start hosting foreigners,” guesthouse owner Rostom Labchek tells me. “I hope others will come.”
IF YOU ARE GOING TO
Most tour operators can help you apply for a tourist visa, which you will need to enter the country.