Terrorism fears derail Algeria's burgeoning tourist industry

Terrorism fears derail Algeria's burgeoning tourist industry
Tourists are staying away from Algeria following the murder of a French hiker in September.
6 min read
30 November, 2014
Tourist companies have stopped taking travellers to the southern Algerian deserts [Getty]
When a French hiker was abducted and killed in September in Algeria's Kabylia mountains, it reminded Algerians of the dark days of the "black decade" of their country's civil war.

In the capital, Algiers, some 100 kilometres west of the Berber-speaking region where Herve Gourdel was allegedly beheaded by Jund al-Khalifa ["Soldiers of the Caliphate"] on 20 September, Algerians debated whether an Islamic State-aligned group was in the country, and what effect it would have on their lives.

"It's a barbaric act, they're criminals and inhuman," one passerby in downtown Algiers said.

The majority of Algerians al-Araby al-Jadeed spoke to take the threat from Jund al-Khalifa, thought to be hiding out in Kablyia's Djurdjura mountains, very seriously.

Earlier this year, the group claimed responsibility for several attacks, including one which killed 11 soldiers in the picturesque mountains of Djurdjura, the same area where Gourdel was kidnapped.

People lived a long period of their lives in fear and bloodshed - so this appears to be a 'normal' thing for them.
- Massi Brouri, cafe owner

On 14 September, the group, previously associated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS), now battling to control large areas of territory in Syria and Iraq.

On 20 September, Gourdel, an experienced climber, arrived for a 10-day hike at Djurdjura National Park and was abducted before he even pitched his tent. The group released a video threatening to kill Gourdel unless France stopped its airstrikes against the IS in Iraq, then beheaded him on 24 September.

Memories of the civil war

In the downtown Meissonier neighbourhood, frequented by a curious mix of businessmen, the unemployed, public officials and police officers, cafe owner Massi Brouri said that like all issues of the day, Algerians discussed Gourdel's killing earnestly, with memories of their country's brutal civil war in mind.

"The death of the French tourist in Tizi-ouzou didn't really scare the clients I spoke with," Brouri said. "Some of my customers have no opinion on the killing of the French tourist while others felt very sorry about what happened to him and the tragic conditions he died in.

"People lived a long period of their lives in fear and bloodshed - so this appears to be a 'normal' thing for them."

Talk about terrorism-related issues in the streets or coffee shops is still taboo. Brouri was intially reluctant to say whether his customers talked about their concerns regarding terrorism. He just preferred to say that he didn't pay attention to such talk inside his cafe.

Scepticism and suspicion

Many of Algeria's journalists and politicians, however, remain sceptical about what they believe is some form of conspiratorial illusion - and one that has the fingerprints of the government all over it.

Some politicians, including Louisa Hanoune, a candidate in April's presidential election and the leader of the country's Workers' Party (PT), suggested that Gourdel's death was the result, however indirect, of foreign intervention.

The killing, she recently told a Workers' Party youth group, may have been the work of the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie (MAK), a group in the mountainous region that seeks to create an autonomous region in the province for the Kabyles, a people of Amazigh (Berber) origin.

Hanoune suggested they could have become involved to "put the region under international protection".

However, some analysts in Algeria's mainstream media say the announcement of Jund al-Khalifa's alignment with the IS group has been overstated, and plays on Algerian fears from the civil war.

"Assumptions have been made concerning where Jund al-Khalifa's allegiance to the IS starts and where it ends," said Ahmed Kateb, a professor at the country's Higher National School of Journalism and Information Sciences.

"However, Algeria is far from the Middle East and its geopolitical contradictions, so the assumption of the effect of its announcement is being put under a spotlight more than the real implantation of the Islamic State in Algeria," he said.

It is more likely that Jund al-Khalifa, a group whose activities remain confined to the region of Kabylia, will conduct more high-profile attacks in the country, he said.

A turbulent history

In the densely populated, mountainous region of Kabylia, one of the many Berber-speaking regions of the country, are two competing, perhaps contradictory histories of hostility and rugged beauty.

From 1954 to 1962, during Algeria's revolution, Kabylia was the cradle of the resistance movement against the French occupation. In recent years, the area in Algeria's northeast has seen several local investors and businessmen abducted for extortion. But according to security sources, these kidnappings have nothing to do with terrorism, only banditry, often organised by local groups of young men.

This year, we've done nothing for foreigners willing to visit the Southern region. There is much we could do, but we can't.

The landscape, which has attracted tourists from all over the world, is an ideal hideout for armed groups. The lack of security has forced many young people to leave the area, abandoning their homes and moving to the cities seeking employment, as Kabylia scares off investors and has brought the local economy, already suffering from high unemployment, to its knees.

This has been especially hard for cattle-rearing and olive cultivation, the region's key industries.

After more than a decade of bloodshed, Algeria's tourism industry has made progress in attracting visitors back to the country, and the Djurdjura National Park, according to tourism operators. Last year, 2.7 million tourists visited the country.

But just days before the official launch of the Saharan tourism season, Gourdel's murder has already had an impact on the country's tourism market, already struggling to overcome ngative perceptions caused by the violence in neighbouring countries.

"Since October 2009, Algerian authorities suspended our access to the far south because of security problems in Mali and Libya. Now, we no longer work in southern Algeria at all due to the difficulty of controlling such a vast area of desert," said Cherif Menasra, a manager of an Algerian tourism company.

As a result, Menasra said, "this year, we've done nothing for foreigners willing to visit the southern region. There is much we'd like to do, but we can't."


Zegri Ahmed, the chairperson of the local travel agencies' association in the southeastern Illizi province, told reporters that all bookings for September and October had been cancelled after Western countries issued warnings advising their nationals against travel in Algeria.

China's Xinhua news service estimated that nearly 1,000 German, French and Dutch tourists have cancelled their trips this year.

"We thought we would start the Saharan season with confidence, before this hostage situation turned into a murder," Ahmed lamented. The attitude of Western countries following the tragedy is over-cautious, he said.

"Our tours are secured by the Algerian security services. Since the terrorist attack on the [In Amenas] gas plant in January 2013, security measures put in place were strengthened," he said.

For many Algerians living in the south, tourism is the only industry outside of camel husbandry that keeps local economies running.

"They were working as local guides, drivers, known for their perfect knowledge of the big desert," said Menasra.

"It's impossible to give the real number of people who will suffer from unemployment after many travel agencies decided to stop their tours to these destinations, but one thing is sure: the biggest losers are the people who live there."