Fabled city of Timbuktu bent on wooing tourists

The fabled desert city of Timbuktu has long fired the imagination of travellers but an outbreak of fierce fighting in the region has sparked concern that tourists may snub this African treasure.

"Each tourist season, we have around 11,000 tourists. That is good for the local economy," said Mahamane Dady, a local official from the Malian tourism office.

"But with the recent problems linked to security in the region, we are crossing our fingers."

Clashes between a regional branch of Al-Qaeda, called Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and soldiers on July 4 killed "dozens" of people in the Timbuktu region, according to the army.

Mali's President Amadou Toumani Toure has since stepped up an offensive to counter AQIM, announcing a "total struggle" against the group.

So far, tourists are still streaming into this UNESCO world heritage site in northwestern Mali, an oasis with towering mosques and monuments that emerged as a trade hub in the 13th century then developed into an important spiritual and intellectual centre of the Islamic world in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Its name is still a metaphor in many cultures for exotic, distant lands.

"Timbuktu is very nice. I don't fear for my safety here, I am not frightened," said Lisa, a Spanish tourist who gave only her first name as she was fitted in a local shop for a "boubou", the ample traditional robe worn in much of West Africa.

Western countries, notably France and the United States, have expressed concern about the development of the north African branch of Al-Qaeda, which has stepped up attacks in recent years, particularly in Mali and Mauritania.


In another incident last month, AQIM took four European tourists and two Canadian diplomats hostage in northeast Mali and neighbouring Niger, executing a British tourist but finally releasing the others.

But tourism officials insist Timbuktu remains safe and are working hard to spread the message -- notably with increased security and cut-price offers.

"Security problems? It's not in Timbuktu or the surrounding region," said Dady. "It's always on the other side of Mali that this happens," he said, referring to the July kidnappings.

Outside the city's oldest hotel, Le Bouctou, a tour guide who gave his name as Iba said business was stable, with 30 confirmed tourist bookings so far this year against 35 the previous year.

Another guide, Ayouba Ag Moha, who has seen client numbers rise to 55 from 42 in 2008, criticised travel warnings issued by several countries against visiting the northern part of Mali.

One of the world's poorest countries, Mali has invested in tourism to boost revenue.

"It's our job to explain to tourists that they are safe with us," the guide said.

To do this, local authorities and even some guides are employing security guards -- quietly.

"We have guards in civilian clothing in Timbuktu and the region who provide discreet security for tourists and the people," one security official said.

"But it's very important for tourists to feel free," said a tour guide named Baba. "I don't tell them they're being guarded."

Cut prices are also wooing visitors.

Outside a large tent, a group of 10 tourists said they had booked a tour of the area for 125,000 CFA francs (A$323), instead of the original fee of 200,000 CFA francs.

And one local hostel owner said he's booked full, pulling in tourists by offering a free traditional barbecue, or "mechoui".

"We start by barbecuing a camel," he explained. "Inside, there is beef. Inside the beef, there is mutton, inside the mutton there is chicken, inside the chicken there is a pigeon. And inside the pigeon there is an egg."

The only drawback -- tourists wait six hours for the meal to cook.