Travel to North Africa brings the visitor face to face with unique customs and heritage from its diverse array of inhabitants. In this report from world-traveler Richard Hand, we learn about obscure Western Sahara and its tumultuous existence.
Tug of War
The status and politics of Western Sahara have been contested and unstable almost since the end of WWII when this previous Spanish colony was relinquished from its control by the mother country. Its fate is still ponderous and uncertain with friction coming from Morocco with its claim of interest, Algeria to the northeast that identifies itself with a large component of the area’s population (Sahrawi, of Bedouin descent), and the country’s internal movement, the Polisario Front, that seeks independence for this area it calls Sahrawi. The area controlled by the Polisario borders directly on Algeria and Mauritania and is known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) with its provisional capital at Bir Lehlou.
Mind the Gap
The area’s political uncertainty has caused it to receive a United Nation’s definition as being a non-self-governing territory. The area is prone to sporadic unrest, particularly to the southeast of a berm that serves as a buffer zone known as the Moroccan Wall. The region’s instability goes back even further to a historical feuding between Algeria and Morocco. There are reports that this region has the highest density of landmines in the world, and travel beyond this line is off-limits to tourists with area patrols performed by both UN and liberation forces.
A Contest of Ownership
The northern part of the country is under Morocco’s influence, with significant resources and subsidies earmarked for this area with a Wikileaks report that it is one of the largest per-capita aids programs in history, causing considerable economic strain on the country abutting its northern boundary. Its largest natural resource is the sea with its fishery, although there is some phosphate mining and there is speculation that the offshore may have oil and gas deposits. However, due to its lack of full country status, its claim to these resources is debatable. The land itself is one of the harshest environments on Earth being primarily arid desert, with any agriculture being confined to some coastal areas.
Tourism with a Difference
The capital is El Aaiún, also known as Laâyoune, in the Moroccan-influenced portion with flights from Spain, Morocco and the Canary Islands. The city provides a good opportunity to sample Western Sahara with the area’s monumental sand dunes providing opportunities for sand skiing and camel or SUV caravans across the desert, balloon rides over dunes, and a coast where the desert abruptly ends at sea’s edge in what is virtually an endless beach. A number of tour companies offer expeditions to Western Sahara that are adventure trips for travelers who like to venture and experience the fringes of contested areas. Also the Polisario itself organizes refugee tourism to the main camp in Algeria’s Tindouf through charitable organizations to get the message of the Sahrawi out on the world stage.
This article was written by Richard Hand on behalf of Palace Travel. Palace Travel offers tours, safaris and destination management services throughout Africa including Western Sahara, and operates on-site offices throughout West Africa.