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food / travel

Sustainable Tourism In Western Sahara Is Driven By The Wind

Rolling sand dunes and ascetic silence. Kites and boards flying over lagoon waters. And tomato farms. It's Dakhla, the windy Moroccan city of sustainability.

Camel exhibition in Dakhla
Camel exhibition in Dakhla
Agostina Delli Compagni

DAKHLA — Located on the Atlantic coast, at the edge of the Sahara, it used to be called "Villa Cisneros"after the Spanish founded it in 1884. During the second half of the 1970s, the small fishing port now called Dakhla was occupied by Mauritania, which was later defeated by the Polisario Liberation Front, a movement fighting for the independence of the region known as Western Sahara.

Since 1985, Dakhla belongs to Morocco, though it is part of the territory still claimed by those seeking an independent Western Sahara. But these days, it is not the politics that is making waves here. Just looking around, a visitor can begin to see the future. The wildlife reigns supreme along the sand paths at the mouth of the river Rio de Oro: The camels, goats, sheep, but also dolphins, flamingos and migratory birds are all around.

And despite the desert climate and topography, fruits and vegetables are grown here for export. Tomatoes, for example, can be produced throughout the year thanks to the use of greenhouses, with yields only depending on customers’ request. The water for the entire city comes from a single 400-meter deep aquifer.

The economic activity that brings the greatest returns is fishing, with this stretch of the Atlantic accounting for some 75% of all of Morocco's stock, including shi drum, bream, yellowtail and oysters.

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Fishmonger in Dakhla — Photo: David Stanley

"We want to implement a smart, sustainable and inclusive development," says Sidi Mohamed Khtour from the Regional Council of Tourism of Morocco. "We want progress but, at the same time, safeguard what we have."

Khtour cites the Europe 2020 Strategy, a regulatory framework that provides guidelines on how to carry out commercial and tourist activities while respecting the environment. There is also funding from the Mohammed VI Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, while the National Research Institute of Fisheries (Institut National de Recherche Halieutique, INRH) is in charge of monitoring and analyzing the marine ecosystem.

"We check the quality of the water almost every month," he says. "The reason is simple: We are interested in healthy growth, not mass tourism. "

Locals also want to monitor the sustainability of the territory. "The inhabitants of Dakhla feel safe with what we are doing. They want to work together for national prosperity and better integration,” says Jazia Santissi, director of the National Body for Moroccan Tourism in Italy.

Visitors have plenty of activities to choose from, including desert and dune excursions in 4x4 vehicles or atop a camel, or visiting the thermal spring of Asmaa, with sulphurous water used in treatment of skin, respiratory and bone problems. Guests can stay in khaïmats tents, the traditional desert housing.

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Great Sea of Sand near Dakhla — Photo: Vyacheslav Argenberg

But Dakhla is above all known for kitesurfing. "August is the windiest month, explains Mohammad, a 22-year-old kitesurf instructor in Dakhla. "People must be particularly skilled to kite during that time of the year."

The experience is also special here because there are no buildings along the coast here, and the waters are relatively shallow. "I started by chance," explains Carmen Cardone, co-owner of the company Soul Rider Tours, who came here on holiday with his brother for what was supposed to be a short break before starting his career in academia.

"During that holiday I was transported into a parallel world," he recalls. "To feel in harmony with the waves, carried by their strength and being part of a whole ... Surfing is a cure for the spirit and for me it is a passion that has turned into a career."

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