Mali moves music festival as tourism threatened by Al Qaeda threat
A string of attacks by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in and around Mali has hurt the tourism mecca of Timbuktu. The popular Mali Festival au Desert was moved closer to the city yesterday for safety.
In a normal December, the streets of Timbuktu are crawling with Western tourists. They take tours of the local libraries full of 12th-century manuscripts, ride camels into the desert to spend the night under the stars, and in early January, attend the Festival au Desert, a kind of Saharan Woodstock, where Tuareg and Malian guitarists trade blues riffs that would bring a smile to the face of John Lee Hooker.
But this past December was no normal one. A series of kidnappings of Western tourists and aid workers – claimed by a group calling itself Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – has prompted most Western embassies in Bamako to urge Western tourists to stay away from northern Mali this year.
Typical is this recent warden message sent out by the US embassy. The US embassy in Bamako, "continues to recommend against all travel to the north of the country due to kidnapping threats against Westerners," a recent message said. "U.S. citizens are specifically reminded that the restricted areas include Essakane, site of the popular 'Festival au Desert' musical event..."
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The festival, which opened Thursday, was moved from its usual expansive Saharan desert locale of Essakane to the outskirts of Timbuktu for safety concerns. But that hasn't eased all fears. France issued a warning on Wednesday advising its citizens not to attend – to the consternation of Mali, which says it has ensured the festival's safety, according to the BBC.
The embassy warnings in general related to tourism, coming from the British, French, American, and even Swiss embassies, have been persistent, and effective, essentially leaving Timbuktu – one of the most remote, exotic, and historically preserved corners of the earth – virtually empty, hammering a region that depends on the winter tourism season for its very survival.
"You know that the Bronx is more dangerous than Timbuktu," says Manny Ansar, the head organizer for the Festival au Desert who is based in Timbuktu. "My problem is that I can't say there is no Al Qaeda in northern Mali, because Al Qaeda is everywhere. They do their attacks in London, in New York City, in India, in Spain, but nobody says don't go to Madrid or London because of Al Qaeda. Why only to us?"
"We are one of the most popular events in Africa, but we are struggling, because it is difficult to succeed when the biggest customers – America and Britain – are telling their citizens 'don't go'," he sighs. "We will lose 60 to 70 percent of the people who would like to come. But we will be here. The festival will go on."