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

Photo - wallygrom

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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