With its ancient Roman ruins and golden beaches set against the lush hills of western Algeria, Tipaza should be a star of the Mediterranean tourist industry. Its proximity to North Africa’s conflicts, decrepit hotels and erratic water supply help explain why it’s not.
Unlike in neighboring Morocco and Tunisia, Algeria’s attractions were ignored for decades as it lived off its oil and gas, and civil war kept holidaymakers away. Faced with the plunging price of crude, it’s now seeking to tap other assets and build a tourist industry.
“The sector was on the fringes of the national economy for many years,” Tourism Minister Amar Ghoul said in an interview in Algiers. “Our mission today is to place it at the heart.” Nearly 1,000 tourist projects worth at least $3.9 billion have been approved, he said.
One of the region’s least-visited countries, there’s enough potential to have lured Intercontinental Group and Holiday Inn this year. But more investment is needed and the drive to catch up is badly timed, as Islamist violence scares people away from the region.
“Algeria is only beginning to emerge as a destination, and this new beginning will be especially difficult during a time like this,” said Nadejda Popova, a travel analyst at market research firm Euromonitor International. “Unfortunately, the circumstances are against them.”
Morocco is the best example of what a tourism industry can do for a North African country: it employs 400,000 people there and accounts for about 10 percent of the $107 billion economy. Algeria’s need for cash is less pressing — it has $158 billion of reserves, amassed from energy exports. Still, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s government wants new sources of jobs for a youthful population, and revenue for a welfare system that helps keep the peace.
Tunisia, has also succeeded in building a mass tourism industry, but one that’s in crisis after dozens of holidaymakers were shot dead on a beach by Islamist militants. Egypt has experienced a similar reverse since the Arab Spring of 2011.
All those governments have knowhow that Algeria lacks. They use YouTube and Twitter for marketing campaigns, while the website of Algeria’s Tourism Ministry is often offline. And even if tourists do reach the country, there’s a shortage of places for them to stay: the capital, Algiers, has just 19,000 hotel beds.
Similar obstacles exist in Tipaza, an hour’s drive west. Besides the region’s natural beauty there’s nothing to attract visitors, provincial governor Abdelkader Kadi said at a meeting of local leaders. Taps often dry up, hotels and archaeological sites aren’t maintained and the local museum is often closed, he said.
“If we continue like this, no tourist will ever come,” Kadi said. “We all need to change how we do things, and here in Tipaza we have to lead the way.”
That requires major investment so even as the government cut spending this year by 9 percent, it pledged not to ax infrastructure that will support a more diversified economy, including the construction of ports and airports.
Didier Boidin, vice president of InterContinental Hotels Group, is among the believers. “It’s a country that has a huge economic and touristic capital,” Boidin said in an interview in Algiers. InterContinental and Holiday Inn will partner to open their first hotel in the capital by March.
The government knows it has to build an image as well as infrastructure. It sponsored Yann Arthus-Bertrand, the French photographer whose coffee-table book “Earth From Above” was a bestseller, to film the country’s snow-capped mountains, Saharan sand dunes and world heritage sites from the sky.
Officials say they’re having some success: last year, Algeria recorded 2.7 million arrivals, the most ever. But almost all were Algerian expats, while others were descendants of the so-called pied-noir, French-speaking natives whose families emigrated before the country won independence from France in 1962.
Algerians endured another brutal conflict more recently, the civil war between Islamists and the army that ended in 2000. Its legacy is a deeper reason why Algeria struggles to attract foreign visitors, said Cherif Amouche, who worked as a tour guide before the industry was decimated by fighting.
“Security is important, of course, it’s a consideration for foreign tourists, but in the case of Algeria it isn’t the only one keeping them away,” he said. “Algeria has become a country closed in on itself.”
The government must train more hospitality workers — Algeria has just one state tourism college, though there are also private centers — and ease bureaucracy that makes visa applications long and expensive, Amouche said.
The Basilica of St. Augustine illustrates the problem. Perched on a green hill near the eastern coastal town of Annaba and overlooking ancient Roman ruins, it was among the most- visited sites before the civil war. Some pilgrims still come to celebrate the life of St. Augustine, who was born in Algeria in 354 AD and helped formulate the doctrine of original sin.
It was empty on a recent Saturday, though, even after the government, with help from France and Pope Benedict XVI, spent $7 million to restore it. Bachir Aami, who lives nearby, said the community was hoping that the investment would revive interest.
“It’s been restored but we still haven’t had many visitors,” he said. “Tourists would be so welcome.”
This article was written by Salah Slimani and Caroline Alexander from Bloomberg and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.