Timbuktu Today

The world used to be divided into three economic zones – 1st world countries were the western capitalist industrial countries, 2nd world countries were the communist countries and the rest were the poor undeveloped countries.  With the fall of communism in 14 out of the 19 countries and rapidly growing economies like China, India, Brazil, Russia, etc, the VERY poor countries are now called the 4th world countries.  Just about all of the countries in Africa are 4th world.  (The term “4th world” is still hardly used in press, so everywhere else we use the old label “3rd world”.) Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world.  These days Timbuktu is one of the poorest places in Mali.

A tourist in Timbuktu

A tourist in Timbuktu

Timbuktu’s economy depends on tourism.  Our centre’s survival depends on the tourism industry.  Unfortunately the tourist season here is only about 4 months – November to February.  March is the start of the hot season, which lasts until the end of June.  By about 10 am the temperatures reach levels (35 – 45 deg C) that are difficult to tolerate by outsiders.  Even the locals will do their best to avoid all outdoor activities.  The town comes back to life by about 5 pm.

July to October is the rainy season and the temperatures are more tolerable, There are almost no tourists here during the wet season because the last 200 km of the road to Timbuktu is a corrugated dirt road going over sand dunes, dry river beds, rocky patches or “potholes” filled with fine sand and in wet season with water.  Flash downpours can fill the potholes and dry riverbeds with water and turn the clay sections of the road into a quagmire.

Aerial shot of Timbuktu

Aerial shot of Timbuktu

In November the rainy season is over and the climate is much more pleasant, so the tourist start trickling in to see the fabled city.  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; see the museums and mosques, ride camels into the desert to spend the night under the stars, etc. The tourist season peaks in January with the Desert festival – Festival au Desert, a kind of Saharan Woodstock.  But during the last few years a string of attacks by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in and around Mali has hurt the tourism.  In 2006, 25,000 tourists visited the city; the number fell to 7203 in 2008, 6,000 in 2009 to a meagre 492 in the first quarter of 2011,

Most Western embassies in Bamako urged Western tourists to stay away from northern Mali.  The warnings 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 the head organizer for the Festival. “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?”

Desert Festival in Timbuktu

Desert Festival in Timbuktu

The 2012 festival was held on 12, 13 and 14 January 2012, but not in Essakane – a small Touareg village 66 km west of Timbuktu, where it used to be held.  In 2010 the organizers decided to bring it much closer to Timbuktu – a walking distance from the Flame of Peace monument and Sahara Passion Hostel.  The festival used to be attended by up to 25,000 people from ALL corners of this planet.  We were expecting that we will be VERY busy and hoping the income will be enough to cover the operating expenses and rent and some to pay our masseurs.  But following the killing and kidnapping, just about the only white visitors were a few journalists and a surprise 15 minutes appearance by U2 front man Bono. (http://www.atu2blog.com/all-15-minutes-of-bono-singing-in-timbuktu/29474/

There used to be some 50 hotels, hostels and tourist accommodation places.  Late in 2011 the Tourist information centre would hand you a sheet with “Information on tourist facilities in the region of Timbuktu” and it would have a list of 18 establishments in a region the size of Spain.  If you Goggled “Hotels in Timbuktu”, you would see a list of about 6 hotels.  The “red zone” safety classification for northern Mali was been removed in April 2011, but slapped back on late in November.  It will be years before tourism comes back to 2006 levels.