(Bloomberg) -- A short flight from Europe, there’s a country that just about offers it all but where you’ll struggle to spot a foreign tourist. Perhaps not for much longer.
With a warm Mediterranean sea in summer, great winter skiing, vast Saharan deserts, towering Roman ruins and prehistoric art of global renown alongside an intriguing modern Arab culture, Algeria should be a top travel destination.
But as neighbors built hotels and marketed their charms, it was deep in a brutal 1990s civil war with Islamist militants, a conflict that left the country deeply scarred and ruled over by a cabal of army officers and independence-era politicians who looked inward and relied on oil to bankroll the state.
At last that self-imposed seclusion could be about to end, with officials embarking on the first serious effort to relax visa restrictions that mean the North African nation and OPEC member remains among the region’s trickiest places to visit.
Algeria’s ready to become “the alternative destination for the Mediterranean,” said Abdelkader Gouti, an adviser to the Tourism Ministry. “It’s a real industry that generates a lot of wealth in terms of currency and jobs. Algeria cannot afford the luxury of remaining on the sidelines.”
In going after vacationers, the government is following the lead taken last year by Saudi Arabia, which issued its first tourist visas as part of an economic overhaul to help wean it off its hydrocarbon addiction.
Algeria pumped its financial riches into an elaborate subsidy system to keep the peace, but after oil prices slumped in 2014 that became harder to sustain. Overwhelmingly peaceful youth protests erupted a year ago, eventually toppling veteran President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and convincing his successors that something had to change. Many of Algeria’s 44 million people still regularly take to the streets.
Algeria has recorded between 2.5 million and 3.5 million annual tourist visits in recent years, although the vast majority were by Algerians living abroad, Gouti said in an interview. By contrast, more than 13 million people visited Morocco last year.
Closing the gap won’t be easy. Morocco has been luring international travelers since the 1920s with its oases, mountains and buzzing cities, while the beach resorts and markets of Tunisia -- the region’s only full democracy -- are again popular with Europeans after jihadist attacks in 2015 battered the industry.
Providing at least some of the services that foreign tourists expect will be a challenge for Algeria’s besieged leadership.
“Improving the visa regime represents a positive step,” said Anthony Skinner at Verisk Maplecroft, a U.K.-based risk consultancy. But “authorities will also have to engage in a robust PR campaign to challenge rival, long-established Mediterranean destinations.”
Gouti said “cheap mass tourism” isn’t the answer, and Algeria will target wealthier visitors and adventure holidays. All the same, he cited plans to expand the port in the capital, Algiers, for hosting cruise-ships, and develop at least one resort on its lengthy Mediterranean coastline. The goal is 5 million annual tourists by 2025, half the capacity of a much-touted new terminal at Algiers’ airport that opened last year.
What does Algeria offer?
Perched over a deep ravine, the so-called ‘City of Bridges’ is one of Algeria’s iconic sights, with a selection of Ottoman-era homes and mosques.
Algiers and Oran
Overlooking the Mediterranean, the country’s two largest cities are places of grand boulevards and maze-like old quarters that rival anything in neighboring Morocco.
Timgad and Djemila
Some of North Africa’s best-preserved Roman ruins lie in the mountains just outside Algiers. Both date from the 1st century AD, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and sport the remains of theaters, temples and homes
This southeastern national park has some of the world’s most important prehistoric art. The 15,000-plus engravings found on this plateau bordering Libya, Nigeria and Mali include depictions of crocodiles, antelopes and hunters, some dating from 6,000 BC.
Algeria’s most popular ski resort sits among cedar forests in the Atlas Mountains, about 40 miles south of the capital. Developed by French colonialists in the 1940s, it was restored after the 1990s civil war.
Investors from Turkey and Gulf countries including Qatar are interested “because everything remains to be done in Algeria,” according to Gouti. In Morocco and Tunisia, tourism “is saturated,” while Algeria’s recent lifting of a restriction on foreigners owning the majority of a business has helped drum up attention.
Granting foreigners quick access would be a dramatic turnaround for Algeria, which has been under tight government control ever since independence from France in the 1960s. Securing a visa for most travelers takes at least two weeks, sometimes much longer, and needs extensive documentation. Citizens of neighbors including Morocco, Tunisia and Libya can visit for 90 days visa-free, as can Malaysians.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who was elected in December in a vote many boycotted, is expected to soon sign into law a new government action plan whose economic pledges include supporting travel agencies, encouraging more charter flights and facilitating visa procedures for foreign tourists. The draft gives few details on how they’ll be implemented.
A new visa system will be ready “in the coming weeks,” Gouti said, declining to be more specific.
Europeans “who are right next door with air links” are the main prize, although Algeria also wants to attract visitors from China, Canada and the U.S, he said. Under the plans, tourism’s share of gross domestic product will triple to 4.5% in 2025.
Algeria has seen postwar Islamist violence, including a 2013 attack on a gas plant partly run by BP Plc near the Libyan border that killed at least 38 foreign hostages. But it hasn’t been ravaged by the kind of sustained conflict seen elsewhere in the Middle East.
The U.S., and other Western nations, warn against visiting some parts of Algeria, including traveling overland in the Sahara. Gouti, though, said any trips would be trouble-free.
“We are one of the safest countries in the world,” he said.
--With assistance from Farah Elbahrawy.
To contact the reporter on this story: Salah Slimani in Algiers at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Nayla Razzouk at email@example.com, Michael Gunn, Mark Williams
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