Mawli Dayak turns emotional as he quotes his late father, Mano Dayak, the legendary former rebel leader of Niger’s Tuareg community. “You can’t speak about the desert, you have to live it,” says Dayak, as our conversation in the central Niger city of Agadez veers from a formal interview to words like attay, the tea served in every Tuareg home. But Dayak’s words aren’t meant only for the residents of the city. The 40-year-old is part of an emerging movement to restore the historic city of Agadez, once known as the gateway to the Sahara, back to its eminence as a tourist destination — against the odds.
Until 2007, charter flights packed with European visitors would land in Agadez throughout the winter. Cars for the Paris-Dakar rally would warm up their engines here, before racing through some of the most spectacular settings in the world. A series of armed rebellions in northern Niger first dented that reputation. Then came jihadi movements and instability across the borders in Mali and Libya starting in 2011, which, coupled with militant attacks in Agadez and the town of Arlit 200 kilometers north in 2013, appeared to have wiped out that legacy. Instead, Agadez became a notorious human-smuggling route through which thousands of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa were illegally ferried into Libya and, eventually, Europe.
”There’s not a single day that I don’t think about my friends [in] Europe. I know they want to come back, and I dream to see them again.”
Kawal Akilal, migration agent
But the city is trying to turn the clock back, desperately battling to reattract tourists. The 20,000 tourists who would nose around the alleys of the old city every winter up to 2007, before leaving for expensive desert tours, are still a mirage. Smaller groups, though, are starting to reappear.
The Pension Tellit, a once-popular hotel that closed in 2007, at the dawn of the last rebellion, reopened in mid-2017 and has since hosted more than 500 visitors. The local government is considering proposals for a tourist security guard, patrolling desert areas, along the lines of what Mauritania, Tunisia and Morocco have done. Hundreds of Western visitors have been escorted in the winters of 2017 and 2018 to the Festival de l’Aïr, a Tuareg cultural festival held in the remote oasis of Iferouane. UNESCO helped by awarding Agadez the status of a World Heritage Site in 2013. In December 2016, a government-supported chartered flight landed in Agadez from Paris, for the first time in 10 years. And in June, Dayak’s firm Temet Evenéments brought more than 100 panelists from across Africa to Agadez for a tourism conference titled “Carrefour pour le Tourisme et l’Innovation en Afrique Occidentale” (“Crossroads for Tourism and Innovation in West Africa”).
“We’ll bring back tourism to Niger and to the Sahara,” says Dayak — a promise he keeps repeating throughout the interview.
To understand the magnitude of the challenge, Dayak and others in Agadez face, look no further than the travel advisories of most Western governments, where the city remains on a no-go list. “Reconsider travel,” warns the U.S. Department of State, as “terrorists may attack with little or no warning in the areas bordering Mali, Libya and throughout northern Niger.” “Armed groups, living out of drugs trafficking, weapons smuggling and kidnapping, are active all over the country,” writes the Swiss Foreign Ministry. A color-coded map from the U.K. Foreign Office labels 75 percent of the country — including Agadez — with a red “advise against all travel.”
These warnings didn’t stop thousands of African migrants from traveling to central Niger, where former tourist guides became immigration consultants offering them advice and routes — for a fee — to illegally cross over into Libya, and then into Europe. That model — loaded with risk for migrants and their Nigerien agents — suffered a crushing blow in 2015, when the Nigerien government banned human smuggling under pressure from the EU. Hundreds of drivers were arrested, their vehicles confiscated.
Kawal Akilal is one of the passeurs — agents — who has suffered from the ban. Sitting at a friend’s artisanal shop in the shadow of the magnificent 17th-century minaret of the city’s central mosque, Akilal, a tall man in his mid-40s, says transporting migrants was always less profitable and more dangerous than tourism, and after the 2015 ban, is getting “harder and harder.”
But the crackdown rekindled memories for Akilal of earlier days when as a boy and then as a young man, he guided tourists and made friends from distant countries. “I grew up with White people,” he says, adding that he would “guide them in the alleys of the old town.” Akilal is confident that past can return. “There’s not a single day,” he says, his eyes glowing, “that I don’t think about my friends from all over Europe. I know they want to come back, and I dream to see them again.”
For Dayak, the revival of the city is also a personal mission, a way to honor his father’s legacy. Mano Dayak, who died in a plane crash in 1995 after striking a historic peace deal with the Nigerien government, helped bring tourists and economic opportunities to a previously isolated region. The Dayak family house bears testimony to the Dayaks’ love affair with their city. Shadows overlap in the vast entry salon, where sunlight filters through windows shaped as the cross of Agadez, the symbol of the city.
Not everyone is convinced these efforts at rebuilding Agadez as a tourist hub will work. “Relaunching tourism needs a huge investment,” says Vittorio Cioni, an 81-year-old Italian who formed Niger’s first travel company. He has lived in the country since the 1970s and now runs the Pension Tellit and a pizzeria next to the Agadez central mosque. “Who’s willing to do it in such a situation of uncertainty?” he says. The idea of tourist patrols, to him, is antithetical to “the idea of desert travel: to be completely free, with no boundaries.”
Dayak concedes there are unanswered questions. Support from major Western nations, he says, will be critical to improving security and bringing back “tolerance and generosity” to the dunes of the region’s Ténéré desert. But he believes Agadez can overcome its obstacles. After all, the U.S. also has mass shooting and violent deaths, he points out. For Agadez, he says, African visitors represent a potential market too.
There’s much that hinges on Agadez’s dream, suggests Akilal. With the ban on human smuggling, youth unemployment is high. “We risk that they’ll become bandits, or even worse,” he says.
Despite challenges, those dreams are slowly resonating across Niger, which will host the African Union’s annual meeting in 2019. And despite Cioni’s skepticism, his restaurant next to the Agadez central mosque is serving up pizza every night to a slowly growing trickle of tourists.
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