February 2, 2006
After years of fear, Algeria’s skiers return
By William Maclean
TIKJDA, Algeria (Reuters) - Gazing at the cedar trees and snow-capped crags of this mountain ski resort, Abdenour Ouahi savors the delights of his sport."When I'm here, I feel at peace. I have no problems," said the 28-year-old, breathless after making his favorite descent at the 4,850-foot-high Tikjda ski center.
The businessman's sentiments echo those of skiers the world over. But Tikjda is not just any winter playground: It is in Algeria, the giant north African oil-exporting country ravaged for much of the 1990s by civil war.
At the height of the conflict the picturesque hideaway was one of the country's most dangerous places. The isolated resort is cradled by the sublime peaks and valleys of the Djurdjura National Park, infested for years by guerrillas fighting to overthrow the government.
Even after the war started to wind down in the late 1990s, few dared visit a region where caves and gullies were used by the militants who turned Algeria into a byword for terror.
These days, snowball fights are the nearest thing to a conflict in Tikjda. The guerrillas are gone -- killed, imprisoned or amnestied.
In a sign that normal life is reviving, vacationers and weekenders are turning increasingly to the hideaway in Algeria's Kabylie region to have fun.
A recent weekend saw 1,000 people skiing, tobogganing and picnicking at the resort, largely abandoned during the conflict.
Student Hayat Chahou, 22, cannot afford to ski. But she scraped up the cash to share the costs of a day trip by car with friends from the capital Algiers, 95 miles to the west.
"It's magnificent! We couldn't visit when the terrorists were here. Now we are free because there is security," she said, a flurry of white speckling her coat as a snowball fight erupts.
"In the period of terrorism there was fear. No one could move around as they wanted," said Chahou's friend Karima Djabri, 23, her breath turning to clouds in the chill air. "Now I feel I can visit any place: North, south, east or west."
Tranquillity is not the usual image the outside world has of Algeria. A click through most foreign tourism Web sites still produces a chorus of warnings about its grim history.
Normal life largely came to a standstill at the height of the campaign by rebels of the hardline Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the al Qaeda-linked Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), famous for slitting the throats of their victims. The groups wanted to create a purist Islamic state.
About 150,000 people were killed during the conflict between security forces and Islamic rebels. The violence erupted after authorities scrapped elections in 1992 which an Islamic party was set to win.
Sporadic violence persists but President Abdelaziz Bouteflika won overwhelming public support in a September referendum for his initiative to grant a partial amnesty to hundreds of Muslim militants.
Re-elected in 2004 for a second five-year term, the 68-year-old Bouteflika is seen as a symbol of stability.
Signs of a return to normality emerged a few years ago when Algerians returned en masse to the waters of their 750-mile-long coast to seek relief from summer heat.
During the war, Algerians were too frightened to go to the beach for fear of attacks by Islamist extremists critical of such activity.
These days, Algerian beaches resemble any European resort in summer, with thousands of families squeezed under parasols with their picnics and deckchairs.
Tikjda's revival signals another step along the country's path to normality, said Syam Toudji, a 28-year-old businesswoman and regular at the resort.
"Obviously you mustn't look for adventures and take risks," she said. "But for tourists, it's an extraordinarily enchanting country waiting to be discovered -- sun, sea, beach, mountains."
A lot remains to be done, and not just in Tikjda, where skiers still trudge up the slopes because ski lifts abandoned during the war were stripped by looters.
Tourism is undeveloped because it has never been a government priority.
While neighbors Tunisia and Morocco each welcome up to 6 million people a year, Algeria hosts only 1 million, mostly Algerians from France visiting their families.
The number of "real" foreign tourists is estimated by industry analyst Said Boukhalfa at no more than 10,000.