I've visited a lot of countries that are tough for tourists these days: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Greece, Sri Lanka, Palestine... but none as tough as Mali. The restaurant on the banks of the Niger in Ségou in the video above... Roland and I sat on that terrace. I was in Mali for about a month in the winter of 2008. Since then it has been consumed by a civil war, which has torn the country in half and immersed it in bloodshed. Foreigners are routinely kidnapped. When we were there, the tourism sector was exploding. Wonderful, charming boutique hotels-- rather than the ugly soul-destroying chains which would have come later-- were popping up everywhere and a growing stream of foreign visitors were helping fuel an economic resurgence, especially in Timbuktu. Timbuktu has now been wrecked by anti-Sufi fundamentalist jihadis, who have destroyed the city's historical treasures and cultural heritage.
The Tuaregs are in full-scale rebellion against the central government-- and have declared independence-- because, like the Southern rebels in the mid-1800s here in the U.S., they want to preserve their "special" way of life: slavery. The Tuaregs are a brutal, savage people, like American southerners, with an Ayn Rand perspective on how to work and play with others. "Others" are meant to be their slaves and they tie he whole ugly, inhuman package up with a phony religionist fundamentalism. In the future, this will be a picture of the Tuaregs of Mali:
When we visited Mali we laughed at the Peace Corp volunteers who were prohibited by the State Department from visiting Timbuktu and the whole northern part of the country. We were lucky; that's all. No one in their right mind goes anywhere near that part of Mali these days. In fact, no tourists go to Mali anymore at all.
Since the coup last March that split the country in two and left the north occupied by al-Qaida-linked rebels, and the kidnapping of a French citizen in November, France has enlarged the "red zone," a no-go area for its citizens that now stretches from Mali's northern borders with Mauritania and Algeria to the north shore of the Niger river in Ségou-- almost three-quarters of the country.And last month, The Economist reported that tourism throughout west Africa is getting hairy. Neighboring Burkina Faso has taken an influx of Malian refugees but now they have their own troubles devastating their small tourism industry.
Other foreign embassies followed suit and warn against all travel to Mali, leaving the tourism sector-- Mali's third biggest revenue generator-- "almost dead," according to Ousmane Ag Rhissa, the tourism minister.
In 2011 almost 200,000 tourists visited the country, each spending at least $100 (£62) a day; barely 10,000 visited last year.
"The impact is pretty severe," Rhissa said. "Since there are no more tourists coming, there is no income generation."
The government has written off as unrecoverable more than a quarter of the targeted revenue for 2012. Spending plans have been slashed and the suspension of donor funding in the form of budget support and project aid has caused a state budget shortfall of $782m (£488m).
This has exacerbated shortages caused by the Sahel food crisis. Rising gas and food costs-- a 100% increase in the price of millet in the last year-- are making it harder for struggling businesses to keep afloat.
An army mutiny in 2011 prompted foreign embassies to turn their travel warnings to red. Then in January this year, 37,000 refugees from neighbouring Mali flooded across the border to escape their country's political crisis. The collapse in Mali's tourist industry has been even more damaging. The country has long been a highlight of travel in West Africa. Tour operators got people to Burkina Faso by tagging it on to a trip to Mali. With Mali now off-limits, the bottom has fallen out of regional tourism.Meanwhile France is coming to the rescue, even bombing the legendary city of Gao, deep inside rebel-held territory. And starting tomorrow so are Mali's African neighbors. Hopefully, they'll be more successful than this automated news report:
Rerouting circuits to other nearby countries is the obvious solution but this is difficult. Neither Niger nor Côte d’Ivoire is particularly secure. Togo is small and undeveloped. Benin's tourism infrastructure is improving, but it lacks the mythical appeal of Timbuktu and the Dogon Country.
That leaves Ghana. On paper it is the ideal travel companion to Burkina. Its beaches complement Burkina’s landlocked terrain. The slave forts provide insight into an important page of modern history. The bustling metropolis of Accra, Ghana’s capital, offers a glimpse into what the future of Africa looks like, less evident in Ouagadougou, Burkina’s sleepy capital.
But Ghana is Anglophone, and French-speaking Burkina-- like its former colonial power-- has not taken to English. Local guides rarely speak English well enough to shepherd visitors around. They also need an international driving license to drive in Ghana-- unnecessary in its Francophone neighbours-- and vehicles require a special registration permit. Both of these must be renewed every year.
Those in the business say that Burkina’s tourism authorities should do more to promote the country as a safe destination and foster links with Ghana. For many 2012 has been their worst year. One hotelier decided to go back to his native France to work through the summer season to make ends meet. But with a military intervention proposed in Mali next year, things will only get tougher for Burkina Faso.
France itself has beefed up domestic security in anticipation of Islamist terrorism at home. Britain has pledged to help France logistically (as has the U.S.) and the Islamist rebels say that the war against "the Crusaders" is just beginning. "This is a holy war. The deaths are normal," said Sanda Ould Boumama, spokesman for the rebel group Ansar Dine, which is linked to al Qaeda. "Our fighters are prepared to die for our cause," he told CNN by phone. People aren't hearing much about the Tuaregs and their role-- their desire to hold slaves again-- primarily because the Western powers want to turn them against their Islamist allies and don't want to demonize them in the press. Pretty sick!
This report makes more sense, is more up-to-date and more comprehensive: