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..."
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."
String of attacks around Timbuktu
Locals say the threat of Al Qaeda in northern Mali is overstated, but there have been a worrying string of attacks against Westerners in all the countries around Mali, and in Mali itself. Al Qaeda in the Maghreb has taken credit for the following ones:
• In December 2008, the kidnapping of two Canadian nationals working for the United Nations in Niger.
• The kidnapping of four European tourists along the Mali-Niger border, in which one British hostage was killed in June 2009.
• The murder of a US citizen in Mauritania in June 2009
• The suicide-bombing of the French Embassy in Mauritania on Aug. 8, 2009
• In November, the kidnapping of four Spanish aid workers in Mauritania, and the kidnapping of a French citizen living in the Malian city of Menaka, some about 500 miles (800 kilometers) from Timbuktu. Al Qaeda has taken credit for both of these recent kidnappings.
Local people in Timbuktu say the embassy warnings are an overreaction to the problem – most of which occur far from the Timbuktu region – and that the warnings have effectively killed the tourist season this year.
"I have a hotel with 16 rooms, but right now I have only two or three of them filled," says Alhous Ag Tajoli, a hotelier in Timbuktu. "In a normal year, I am crazy right now, on the phone, making bookings, but this year, I have no one. It's a catastrophe."
Mohamed Alhassane, another tour operator in Timbuktu, said: "Last year, during the Festival, I had 700 tourists booked in hotels. Two years ago, we had 400 tourists booked. This year, because the Americans say, 'Don't come,' no one has come."
Secretary: 'We are the victims of misinformation'
Tuareg nomads have always come to the Timbuktu region for trading, and they have always gathered at Essakane – about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of here – to trade goods, and camels, and stories of their travels. The Festival au Desert, started in 2001, six years after a major Tuareg rebellion, brings together musicians from the Tuareg region who carry on ancient traditions of story telling. When Timbuktu was at the height of its power and influence, it was a center for trading in salt and gold and slaves, and the music one hears at the Festival carries with it the DNA of a music that Americans call the blues.
Mali's tourism industry, and its politicians, are not taking the problem lying down. Early in December, they held a splashy extravaganza at a Timbuktu hotel to open the tourist season, with top local and national musicians giving a taste of things to come at the Festival au Desert. At a press conference, Manny Ansar and a panel of Malian leaders promised to combat Mali's sudden image problem.
"A few years ago, we were victims of a drought and famine," says Nana Haidara, Mali's secretary for food security. "Now we are the victims of misinformation and exaggeration. Nobody will come to our rescue. We must help ourselves first."
While Western tourists have been canceling their Festival plans this year in droves, few Western artists have, and a number of top Malian musicians – including guitarist Vieux Farka Toure, son of the late world-music sensation Ali Farka Toure – have made a point to say they will continue to perform at the Festival, no matter what.
"I am from Timbuktu. I was born here. I know the people here, and I don't believe we have Al Qaeda here," says Thiale Arby, a top Malian singer. "For me the Festival is very important. It is good for people to come here in the middle of the desert and to meet people from all different countries. This is a city that has always welcomed everybody, no matter what religion or nation, and that is never going to change."
Of course, the kind of tourist that comes to Mali – an incredibly poor country rich in history and the arts – is also the sort of tourist who tends to have a high tolerance for discomfort and danger, and there are a few tourists in Timbuktu who have come despite, or perhaps because of, the warnings.
"That's actually why I'm here," says Martijn Munneke, a young backpacker from Erm, Netherlands. "Maybe I'm naive, but I want to see the world. When the swine flu struck Mexico, that is when I bought a ticket to go to Mexico. I figured it's a good time to go to Chichen Itza when there are no tourists there."
Anupama Sud, a photography student from San Francisco, working on a photojournalism project, says she had read all about the travel warnings, but decided to come to Mali nonetheless. "It's the final frontier. When you think of Timbuktu, you think of the end of the world. I feel safe here. People from the Third World would rather feed a guest first, which is totally different from what you get in the West."