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Why No One's Going To Timbuktu These Days

Thu, December 6, 2012 8:31am

Story by Tamasin Ford




Listen to this story on npr.org »

A woman walks by the Grand Mosque of Djenne on market day in Djenne, Mali, on Sept. 2. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed town is among the Malian tourist sites suffering from a huge drop in visitors after a coup took place in March and Islamist rebels seized control of the country's north.

A woman walks by the Grand Mosque of Djenne on market day in Djenne, Mali, on Sept. 2. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed town is among the Malian tourist sites suffering from a huge drop in visitors after a coup took place in March and Islamist rebels seized control of the country's north.

A woman walks by the Grand Mosque of Djenne on market day in Djenne, Mali, on Sept. 2. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed town is among the Malian tourist sites suffering from a huge drop in visitors after a coup took place in March and Islamist rebels seized control of the country's north.

Tourism, the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people in the West African country of Mali, has ground to a halt. Since the coup in March and the subsequent occupation of the north by militants linked to al-Qaida, Mali has virtually become a no-go zone for visitors. The impact on the economy and people's lives is profound.

In the historic city of Segou, about 150 miles north of the capital, Bamako, the effects are obvious.

On a recent day, the engine of the brightly painted pinasse, a wooden boat handcrafted with a swooping wicker canopy, slowly starts up.

Modibo Ballo has taken tourists out on the wide, stretching Niger River for more than 12 years, showing them attractions such as pottery and fishing villages, the tomb of the king of Segou and the city's first mosque.

Segou is the capital of the ancient Bambara kingdom — and the start of the tourism trail in Mali.

From here, tourists can travel down the river through the arid lands of Mali to Mopti and Gao, finally reaching the magical and historic region of Timbuktu.

But on this day, the boatman doesn't have a single tourist. It was the same story the day before. Ballo says the last time he had a big group of tourists was in February.

The story repeats itself all over Segou. Hotels are laying off staff or closing down altogether. Boutique riverside restaurants are empty, and the tourist guides and craft sellers sit around drinking green tea — with little do to.

"So, really, this crisis, I don't know what to say, but we are suffering, that's 100 percent sure," Ballo says. "Because our job is tourism, and if there is no tourism we don't know anything to do."

Tourism is Mali's third-biggest revenue generator. Nearly 170,000 people visited the country last year, each spending more than $100 a day.

But in the first half of 2012, there were only about 7,000 visitors — a huge blow to the economy.

"If you compare this period to the past, it's the opening of the season and there should be lots and lots of tourists in all the towns in Mali in all directions," says Ousmane Ag Rhissa, Mali's minister of handicrafts and tourism. "If we do compare, it is true there is not one single tourist now."

In Bamako, Mali's capital, only two of Dalla Sininta's four tailors have come to work on a recent day: There isn't enough work for the others. It's the wedding season, usually the busiest time of year for clothing stores like this one.

It's not just people working in the tourism sector who face hard times. With less money circulating around the country, there is less for people to spend — meaning fewer profits for businesswomen like Dalla.

"The customers don't come because of the lack of money," she says. "People don't have money. The country is not working."

The carpenter's workshop behind Dalla's store has shut down, laying off 18 of its 20 workers.

The small money-changing kiosk up the road is struggling to find tourists with the much-needed foreign currency. Everyone is beginning to feel the pinch.

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