CHINGUETTI -- The innkeeper at the Blue Moor, a hotel perched along the scenic Adrar plateau, looks sad as he waters the plants. It took so much time to make this garden grow, he says with a sigh.
Here in northeast Mauritania, this innkeeper is alone. He hasnt seen a single tourist arrive for more than two years. Like the other 35 inns in this former medieval trading city of Chinguetti, which was designated in 1996 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Blue Moor is now closed down.
Located some 600 kilometers from Nouakchott, the capital, Chinguetti is currently in the midst of a serious drought. But its problems began even before that, thanks to a radical militia group known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The group is active in several northwestern African nations, including Mauritania. Like much of the African Sahel, Chinguetti and the surrounding area is now considered highly dangerous for tourists. Frances Foreign Affairs Ministry, for example, issues regular travel advisories.
Following several jihadist attacks and kidnappings of Westerners, the Mauritanian government began to take on the threat. But the damage was already done. According to Mauritanias tourism minister, Bamba Ould Daramane, extreme poverty, which had dropped by 50% following a surge in desert-hiking tourism in the early 2000s, has since skyrocketed.
Selling off camels, one by one
A destitute family has taken up residence just in front of the Caravan Hotel, the first hotel to open in Chinguetti in 1989. Children with tattered clothing play in a dirty courtyard surrounded by crumbling walls. Their visibly distressed father says he no longer has the means to feed his children.
Almost the entire population benefited from tourism: hotel owners, businesses, artisans and camel drivers. You cannot imagine what that meant, says Dadde Ould Slama, the mayor of Wadane, a neighboring town of roughly 4,500 people.
Wadane is 60 kilometers from Chinguetti and has also been dramatically affected by the drop in tourism. Before, we would welcome 8,000 or 9,000 visitors every year, without counting the Paris-Dakar Rally, says Ould Slama. Then everything stopped. Today, it is very discouraging.
The Dakar Rally, a daredevil road race with a leg that took racers through Mauritania, was relocated to South America three years ago due to security concerns.
Because of the downturn in tourism, camel drivers had to sell off their livestock, little by little. Hotel employees were let go. Artisans no longer have work. We cannot even afford to pay our bills to the bank, says Ndel Khairi, the manager of the Caravan Hotel and a cousin of the owner.
The luckiest eke out an existence with small-scale farming. But many Mauritanians, young people in particular, have left to join the already swelling population of the shantytowns surrounding Nouakchott.
Running low on food... and aid
Making matters even worse for the area is a severe drought that struck Mauritania beginning last year. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), nearly 700,000 people are currently in a "state of food insecurity three times the number in 2010. In a report made public on Feb. 9, the WFP recommends urgent action to assist the poorest households and to avoid a major humanitarian catastrophe.
In Atar, the regional capital of the Adrar, Geneviève Courbois knows the situation well. After living more than 20 years in Mauritania, the Frenchwoman is struggling to combat malnutrition as the head of the organization she founded, Children of the Desert. It is devastating, she says. People no longer have any resources.
Nor is there much outside aid. The halt in tourism has had additional consequences. International flights no longer touch down at Atars airport, where protests broke out last September. Volunteer medical professionals from abroad and NGOs now hardly come to the region.
Last Thursday night, in front of Mauritanias presidential palace, a man was tackled to the ground just before he could light himself on fire. Mohamed Abderrahmane Ould Bezeid, a teacher in his 30s, had just been posted to a teaching position in a remote part of the country. When he refused to go, the state suspended his salary.
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Photo - c. hug