Mauritania’s tourism sector has failed to rebound since a string of attacks by suspected extremist Islamic militants began last year. Workers in the tourism industry say Mauritania is safe enough, and that tourists should come back.
Pap Sarr plays the drums at his store in Nouakchott, where artifacts and colorful baskets are staying on the shelves.
He says business is terrible. He says some Mauritanians come to his shop, as well as employees from embassies, and Mauritanians from the Diaspora, but no regular tourists.
“This year is the worst, worst year,” said Momodou Khan, a tour guide.
He says the downfall began when four French tourists were murdered on 24 December 2007 while they picnicked on the side of a southeastern road in an attack the Mauritanian government blamed on an al-Qaida sleeper cell.
“Since they killed the four French people, things started to be slower, and slower, and slower,” he recalled. “There is no Paris-Dakar [Rally] this year. There are no tourists coming throughout the way. There is nothing.”
The open land motorcycle, truck and automobile race which normally travels through Mauritania was canceled in 2008, and moved to South America for 2009, because of security concerns in the Sahel.
Another suspected terrorist attack killed several Mauritanian soldiers three days after the murder of the French tourists, while in February gunmen sprayed bullets on the Israeli Embassy in Nouakchott, and injured several people leaving a nightclub.
A hotel manager, Djibril Cisse, says his business is also affected by the fallout.
He says his hotel occupancy, which used to be about 65 percent, is now below 25 percent.
But he says he believes fears are unfounded. He says what he calls delinquents and bandits were behind the attacks, and not terrorists.
Khan reminisces about the trips he used to take tourists on.
“Around the Chinguitty [area], there is a mosque there,” he noted. “And Adrar Tergit [area], there is an oasis, just to show them the dunes and the mountains, stuff like that, water fountains, get them to ride the camels. They enjoy it so much. They like the desert. They like riding camels. Most of the time they ride camels, for their first time, so they enjoy it.”
Sarr continues playing his drums, even though no one is showing up at his store.
He says there is no way he will give up his business. He says it is the only way he knows how to feed his family, and that he will persevere, and hopefully one day, tourists will return.