Algeria’s profile as a travel destination is about as low as you can go. I first visited the country 20 years ago, when getting around was much trickier than it is today. But during that month-long trip, I found there was much to detain visitors in a country of this scale and variety.
In the south, where Algeria rubs up against sub-Saharan Africa, lies Tamanrasset, a well-known entry point for the phantasmagorical Hoggar Mountains. Further north, around 700km from Algiers, lies Ghardaïa, capital of an enclave comprising seven desert towns whose inhabitants belong to a strict Muslim sect and dress entirely in white. At the country’s far northeastern end, I have spent time in Constantine, which straddles a deep rocky gorge, and have lounged on the deserted beaches between Skikda and the Tunisian border. Algeria boasts a Mediterranean coastline of more than 1,200km, much of it undeveloped, with sandy beaches whose state of preservation the tourist côtes and costas of Europe can only dream of.
Earlier this month, I returned to Algeria for a thrillingly exotic long weekend and spent time in Oran, the vibrant commercial capital of the Mediterranean northwest, and Tlemcen, further west towards Morocco. The flight to Oran was just 90 minutes from Madrid, and Spain felt close in more ways than one: Oran’s energy and Mediterranean zest reminded me of Almería but with a profoundly north African and Islamic character.
For a long time Algeria’s idea of classy accommodation was the raggedy old Saint George in Algiers, which was built in 1889 and has since been renamed Hôtel El Djazaïr. Thankfully, then, the five-star Hotel Le Méridien opened last June. Owned by the state gas company Sonatrach and run by Starwood Hotels and Resorts, Le Méridien sits alongside Oran’s new convention centre, billed as the biggest congress venue in Africa (the main hall has seating for 3,000 people and a screen measuring 80 square metres).
It might not be saying much, but Le Méridien is surely the hippest hotel in Algeria. The 17-floor tower stands on a clifftop at the eastern end of the bay, its jade-green carapace visible for miles around. As I sat in my room on the 14th floor, I took in the signs of renewal and rebirth. The great bay of Oran stretched away towards the west, watched over by the fortress of Santa Cruz. Cargo ships came and went in the busy harbour. Beyond the dust-coloured scatter of the old town, a big sign displaying the number “50” was lit up, commemorating a half-century of proud independence.
The hotel itself combines contemporary western chic with just the right amount of Arab-style design (the great outdoor wall of Arabic tile-work, for example, is a sensational piece by ceramicist Toufik Boumahdi). In the hotel bar, Latitude 35, smartly-dressed locals sipped expensive beers while a DJ spun hip-hop and electrified Algerian rai. At dinner in the excellent Favola restaurant, a Milan-style interior with cream leather seats and retro styling, I ate a delicious carpaccio of swordfish with fennel and orange salad, and washed it down with a deliciously crisp Algerian white wine.
The question most people want to ask about Algeria, aside from “Isn’t it dangerous?”, is “Whatever happened to its Arab spring?” While Tunisia and Libya, having been generally calm for decades, exploded into revolution in 2011, Algeria’s reaction was more muted.
This is a society that has been embroiled in political upheaval at least since the agony of its independence struggle. Yet its darkest hour came in the 1990s – a decade popularly known as the décennie noire, and a collective nightmare of terrorist brutality and murky counter-terrorism in which an estimated 200,000 people died. The horror of the decade’s mass beheadings and state-sponsored repression is only now beginning to fade. If Algeria wasn’t more in tune with the Arab uprising it was only, in my view at least, for fear of letting the bad times roll again.
There might have been more mobilisation if the country’s economic future hadn’t looked quite so rosy. Algeria has oil and gas in huge quantities – enough, it has been reported, to provide a healthy income for the next 100 years. Grand public projects abound: in Algiers, a mosque is being built which is planned to surpass those of Mecca and Medina as the largest in the world. And when, on a warm November morning, I visited Oran’s Santa Cruz fortress, I took photographs of families taking photographs with iPads.
I had driven up to the citadel with Mohamed Gaouar, whose Bel Horizon association promotes cultural and civic values among the local population. The views from up here are dazzling: the Mediterranean sparkling all the way to the horizon; the grandiose walls of the seven Spanish forts, some with their 16th-century Castilian coats-of-arms intact; the apartment blocks along the Front de Mer, a rich seam for lovers of art deco; and the perfect little Abdelkader Theatre with its Belle Époque frescoes and marble columns, which might have been transported from Haussmann-era Paris.
If Oran is the economic hub of Algeria’s western zone, the cultural nexus must be Tlemcen. This charming and under-visited medieval town lies an hour away on a new motorway that stretches from the Moroccan border all the way to Tunisia.
I spent a day there and wished it had been two. (If I’d thought about it, I could have stayed at the Renaissance, a splendid new five-star hotel.) The graceful arches and sumptuous stucco of Tlemcen’s Great Mosque, built in 1136 and one of the masterpiece buildings in the Andalusian style, would alone have merited the visit. The tomb of Sidi Boumediene, a Sufi mystic born near Seville in 1126, reminded me of the geographical reach of medieval Islam – as did the restored Palais de Méchouar, whose gorgeously decorated patios with their tinkling fountains were a dead ringer for the Alhambra.
Ibn Khaldoun (1332-1406), the Arab philosopher-historian and father of modern sociology, wrote that “Tlemcen attracts visitors even from the furthest countries”. More than six centuries later, however, there was not a westerner to be seen. An employee at the tourist office assured me that, yes, three or four years ago, a couple of British visitors did come through.
And there’s the rub. Tourism would seem a logical answer to Algeria’s over-dependence on oil and gas – but the black decade left the country with an image problem and a tourist industry in collapse. There is still a shortage of decent hotels; infrastructure is improving but remains insufficient. And the unwieldy tourist visa system requires a letter of invitation and payment of around €100 (though as was pointed out to me, this is only a tit-for-tat response to the stringent visa requirements commonly applied to Algerians by western countries).
It may not be too long before Algeria claws its way into the world travel market. The newly-elected minister of tourism, Mohamed Benmeradi, has spoken of an “ambitious yet realistic” plan to increase foreign tourism from 1.9m visits in 2009 to 25m in 2025. The government under Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has presided since 1999 over Algeria’s oil-fuelled rebirth, has set aside $625m to modernise the tourist industry and hopes to create 75,000 new beds by 2014.
After another fine Italian dinner I lean on my balcony watching Oran transform into a Mediterranean party town. The hotel forecourt turns into a Dubai-esque display of rainbow-coloured fountains, garishly lighting up the waving palms. A wedding party in full regalia arrives at the Méridien. Car horns blare, women ululate, Arabic pop music thumps from a sound system while the traffic roars by on the ring road. It’s the soundtrack of a city, and a country, determined to leave the bad times where they belong: in the past.
Paul Richardson was a guest of Le Méridien Oran Hotel and Convention Centre (tel: +213 41 984 000; www.starwoodhotels.com). Doubles cost from £130 per night including breakfast.