Algeria slowly opens up to the world with new visa programme


By AGENCY
  • Africa
  • Saturday, 01 Jun 2024

Djémila in Algeria became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1982 for its unique adaptation of Roman architecture to a mountain environment. — ALIOUECHE MOKHTAR/Wikimedia Commons

One of the Arab world’s last holdouts to global vacationers is slowly opening up, as a new Algerian visa programme gives more outsiders the chance to take in the lunar landscapes and prehistoric art of its vast Sahara desert.

Unlike Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, Africa’s largest country hasn’t prioritised tourism despite its proximity to Europe. It may sport majestic Roman ruins, picturesque Mediterranean cities and soaring Atlas mountains, but this fiercely independent energy exporter has mostly kept its treasures to itself.

That won’t change overnight – Algeria is still a challenging place for most foreigners to bag a visa. But an initiative rolled out in January 2023 has eased the process for adventurous travellers who don’t need maximum comforts to tour the stark southern deserts that make up 80% of the country, and it’s starting to gain traction.

“It’s for people who want to discover the grandeur of nature,” Tourism Minister Mokhtar Didouche said in an interview in the capital, Algiers. “To tourists looking for a five-star hotel, I say in the Sahara you have a million stars!”

For sure, it remains a minority pursuit – Didouche says 10,000 visas have been issued to visit the Sahara in the year to February 2024. Still, overall Algeria tourist arrivals hit 3.3 million over those 12 months, fuelled largely by people visiting friends and family in the country; it’s a level Didouche said was previously “quite unthinkable”. There’s a target of 10 million by 2030.

“At the most, you have a week to 10 days to process your visa,” Didouche said of the latest initiative, significantly shorter than previously when permission was granted via consulates.

Trips have to be booked through approved travel agencies in Algeria and visitors typically have security escorts. In addition to exploring the desert, some tour operators report they are able to take their groups to sites in the north too, although it’s not clear how widespread the practice is.

An average week-long trip organised by local operators involving off-road vehicles and no-frills camping typically costs up to €800 (RM4,075) per person, not including international and domestic flights, according to Algerian travel agents. Terres d’Aventure, a French agency that works with Algerian counterparts, lists tours that start from nine days for €1,850 (RM9,424), including flights.

The slow-motion change comes after Saudi Arabia took the historic step of welcoming tourists in 2019, leaving the North African nation as one of the broader region’s last frontiers for adventure travel. Foreign dollars may also help Algeria’s plans to diversify an economy that’s long practised protectionist policies and is still hugely reliant on the oil and gas reserves it began tapping in the 1950s.Arrivals didn’t exceed 2.7 million per year over the past decade and the industry contributes just 2% to the country’s gross domestic product, according to Didouche. The majority of recorded visitors are from the diaspora with family links to Algeria, as these visitors are allowed easier entry.

The Tadrart Rouge or Red Mountain is located in southeastern Algeria. — PixabayThe Tadrart Rouge or Red Mountain is located in southeastern Algeria. — Pixabay

There are plans to extend the speedier visa-for-the-Sahara policy to the whole country “soon”, the minister said, without providing additional details.

In Algeria’s north, where the vast majority of its 47 million people live, attractions include a 1,200km coastline and Unesco world heritage sites such as the Roman ruins of Tipasa, Timgad and Djémila as well as the sprawling hillside alleys of the Kasbah in the heart of Algiers.

In February, the capital inaugurated a new Grand Mosque – billed as the world’s third-largest such religious complex, and a landmark visible from anywhere in the city.

But if Algeria wants to bring in the tourists, it may need another building spree.

Didouche said there are currently 1,600 hotels offering services appropriate to international travellers, with a capacity of 150,000 to 160,000 beds. “That’s not enough to accommodate a large influx of tourists,” he said.

Authorities are now taking the next step of making land available to investors in the tourism sector, with 58,000ha countrywide being earmarked, the minister said. While land was previously granted as a form of concession, under new laws the ownership will be transferred to investors after the project is completed.

Authorities need “to raise the profile of Algeria as a destination,” Didouche said. “We want to show international opinion that we have a quality destination and that we are a people with a history, traditions, heritage, gastronomy and craftsmanship.” – Bloomberg

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