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food / travel

After The Revolution, Tunisia Looks To Revive Tourism Of Sun, Sea And Desert Treks

Bypassed as a tourist site since the revolution, the southern Tunisian city of Douz looks to regain its hold as an entryway to the Sahara. The country's tourist industry as a whole has been hit hard by the political unrest.

Waiting to be sent (wallygrom)
Waiting to be sent (wallygrom)
Martine Picouët

DOUZ – It's 7 a.m. in the market of Douz, an oasis town in southern Tunisia. Merchants cloaked in their burnouses, a long hooded robe, have placed their wares on the ground: open bags of dates, couscous, fruit, vegetables, spices and dried fish.

The stores begin to open their doors as merchants hang wool carpets for sale outside. In the middle of Douz's square, the oldest of the merchants chat and drink mint tea. This square, adjacent to the cattle market, is a male-dominated world – women and children will arrive later.

For now, it is time for business. Potential customers browse the products, weighing, comparing, quietly negotiating. Transactions take place covertly, with cash passing from hand to hand, and in less than one hour, several horses, donkeys, chickens, goats, sheep and camels have changed owners.

More than a year after the Jasmine Revolution, only a dozen Germans and French tourists have come to hike and enjoy the winter sun. Busy with sewing the pointed, leather slippers common in North Africa, Mohammed, 55, doesn't understand why: "Where are the tourists?" he asks. "The French, Italians, Germans – why aren't they coming?"

Following the ouster of former President Ben Ali from power, the inhabitants of Douz, known as Mrazigians, are worried about the recovery of the tourism industry, which is the leading economic engine for the region, ahead of dates.

Nationally, the number of tourists over the past year has dropped by 40 percent, while revenue fell by 33 percent, according to the Tunisian National Tourism Office. "What are they afraid of?" asks Mohammed, who, like the majority of families in Douz, has long earned money by organizing camel rides and hikes through the desert for visitors.

France's foreign ministry still discourages French citizens from traveling to the eastern Sahara, south of Douz. "You can see that there is no danger," says Ali, who runs a small general store nearby.

Entry point to the Sahara

Mohammed, as do all his neighbors, counts on the harvesting of dates and the few foreign visitors to get by while waiting for the flocks of tourists to return to Douz, a starting point for numerous camel rides in the Tunisian Sahara.

This southern region is shaped by the wind, where the dunes seem to move at the whim of Aeolus. It does not compare with the grand deserts of Algeria or Mauritania, but it serves as an introduction to the Sahara. On this night, we sleep in a tent encampment after a day moving on foot and by camel through the hot sand.

After a night under the stars, we leave in the morning to go east toward Matmata, a first step toward the hilltop villages in Dahar, further south – remote sites that the Berbers fled to during the Arab invasions from the 7th to the 12th centuries.

Soon we leave the erg, the desert dunes, for the reg, the famous desert of stones and pebbles. On the asphalt road, there is little traffic with the exception of some sheep. "In the winter, people stay in their villages waiting for the rains of February and the arrival of spring in March," explains the guide, Dominique Harari.

The moment arrives to go back down to the valley to plant barley and feed the animals. "We see entire families pitching their tents and staying for three months on their plots of land," Harari says.

Meanwhile, we head by car to Tamezret, the last Berber village where Tamazight is still spoken, and Matmata, where amidst the lunar landscapes several scenes from Star Wars were filmed. Flanking the mountain and carved into it, the cave-like homes reinforce the feeling of something supernatural. Such a home is built around a well, with windowless rooms shooting off from it, whitewashed and transformed into bedrooms, kitchens, living rooms and pantries.

Last summer, Myriam and her husband dug through the earth to open up an extra room within the cave in order to accommodate travelers passing through. It is a Berber-style accomodation, where guests sit on colorful mats and taste traditional dishes such as lamb, pomegranates and Deglet Nour dates.

Further south toward Tataween, the landscape is home to the steepest ksours, the cave-like barns stacked on top off each other and dug into the top of the mountain. The ksours are comprised of a multitude of ghorfa, a Berber term for the vaulted rooms where grain is stored. These so-called fortresses served at one time as citadels, and in the event of conflict, inhabitants could find refuge there with their herds. Some ksours have since been converted to lodgings.

Read more from Le Monde in French

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