“This is the only one that speaks English,” the South African sighed as he stuck his debit card into the ATM again. The machine quickly spat out the plastic rectangle before even asking for the customer's PIN, like a toddler being tricked into taking a bite of broccoli.
“They’re all like this! None of them work!” he yelled, shaking his fists at the ceiling of the international terminal at Algiers’ Houari Boumediene Airport—the busiest transportation hub in the largest country in Africa.
I shot him a sympathetic look and patted my pockets, fully aware that my wife and I had arrived in Algeria without a penny’s worth of local currency. If the ATMs didn’t work here, where would they work?
“Maybe this is why no one comes to Algeria,” I whispered to myself.
A former poster child for fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, Algeria spent most of the 1990s at the top of the international “no-go” list. A decade-long civil war swept over the country in 1992, when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a radical upstart political party bent on imposing sharia law across the country, was dismantled by the Algerian military to prevent extremists from taking control of the government.
The FIS jihadists retreated to the mountains, vowing to seize power by any means necessary. The ensuing fighting—assassinations, car bombs, kidnappings, and civilian massacres—left as many as 200,000 people dead and branded Algeria a bloody, lawless land.
While the war technically ended some 15 years ago, Algeria remains a taboo destination in the minds of most tourists. After spending a week in the country’s picturesque capital, I can confidently say Algeria is ready to come out of the shadows.
“Most of the people that come here, they’re told, ‘You’re crazy for going to Algeria,’” Boualem Benamirouche, a professional tour guide, told me a few days later after I was lucky enough to find the only—and I mean only—ATM that accepts foreign debit cards in the entire city.
“But then when they go around, they see that safety is everywhere.”
Perhaps nothing exemplifies Algeria’s slow transformation from war-torn battlefield into potential tourism destination than its centuries-old Casbah. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site the same year the country’s civil war began, the winding, labyrinth-like Casbah—an ancient walled citadel turned major population center—was largely neglected for the last two decades. In 2006, more than a third of the houses in the Casbah—which is Arabic for “fortified place”—had completely collapsed.
Today, while many of the buildings are still in states of disrepair, there has been a concerted effort to preserve, protect, and beautify the site. Wandering through the Casbah with Boualem, we passed by dozens of families out for a stroll, a recently renovated park, a bustling market, and a string of tourists feeling their way through the city’s steep, worn walkways.
At the top of the Casbah, we stepped into what’s simply known as “Khaled’s House”—one of the most famous buildings in the Casbah. Khaled is a well-known Algerian craftsman and something of a local celebrity. He was an extra in one of the country’s most beloved works of art—the 1966 film “The Battle of Algiers,” which documented how Algerian freedom fighters used the Casbah’s twisting terrain to launch attacks on the French colonialists during the country’s struggle for independence. A photo of Khaled on the set of the film hangs prominently on a wall in his front room.
Perhaps Khaled’s biggest claim to fame, however, is his home, which offers one of the best views in the entire neighborhood. Khaled was preoccupied with a construction project when we entered his house, which also serves as his workshop, but he warmly welcomed us in and pointed to the roof. Snaking our way up three flights of narrow stairs, we were rewarded with commanding views of the entire Casbah and miles of Algiers’s deep blue Mediterranean coast line.
Sadly, the view from Khaled’s roof hasn’t translated into any sort of meaningful tourism for Algeria. Nor has the safety, calm, and rugged beauty we experienced in our long walks through the city, from the towering Martyr’s Monument on the hills overlooking the Hamma neighborhood to the one-thousand-year-old Great Mosque on the far western opening of the Bay of Algiers.
According to research released by the World Economic Forum in 2017, Algeria ranks 118th out of 136 countries in terms of travel and tourism competitiveness, lagging far behind its neighbors Morocco and Tunisia, which rank at 65th and 87th, respectively.
That wasn’t any shock to Boualem, who in addition to guiding random travelers, works regularly for the U.S. Embassy in Algiers, helping newly arrived diplomats and their families navigate the city’s curving geography and historic sites.
“We’re still living with some of the consequences of the war and our economy is not diversified. We are not relying on any field other than hydrocarbons,” he said as we sped away from the Casbah and Algiers and towards the ancient Roman city of Tibaza.
In addition to its dreadfully violent past, oil and gas, or hydrocarbons as Boualem elegantly put it, have been another long-term barrier to developing any kind of meaningful tourism industry in Algeria. Oil accounts for 35 percent of the country's GDP and two-thirds of its total exports. Flush with cheap petrodollars, Algeria simply hasn't put much effort into wooing Western visitors—or their pocketbooks.
“We have no publicity, no advertising, nothing!” Boualem griped. “Even the most recent guidebook to Algeria is over ten years old!”
But that’s slowly starting to change and while you won’t see any “Visit Algeria” ads on TV anytime soon, the country is beginning to open up.
“We are seeing the politics change and the government takes tourism more seriously… I used to work maybe two or three times a month, now I work every day.” Boulaem continued, as we rolled up to the police checkpoint I had been dreading for the last half an hour.
Halfway into the drive—with Algiers about 40 miles behind us—I realized I had forgotten to bring my passport with me.
“Is that a problem?” I asked him sheepishly, as the green countryside raced past us.
“Oooh, um, we are going to have to see,” he had said, performing the verbal equivalent of a nervous collar tug. “The police up here, sometimes they stop people. It’s not a problem though, if they stop us, you will just have to stay with the police until we go back and get your passport. Maybe you stay overnight with them?”
I don’t think he was joking.
As the checkpoint came into view, I looked out into the distance, as if my averted gaze would render me invisible. Luckily, the police had stopped another car and were too preoccupied to bother with our sedan.
“Phew. Okay. We’re okay.”
The reward for our temporary anxiety was the Royal Mausoleum of Mauretania—a magnificent circular pyramid-like structure, standing alone on a distant hill. The mausoleum was the final resting place of Queen Cleopatra Selene II—the only daughter of Cleopatra VII and Mark Antony.
The mausoleum was stunning, the deep red bricks and half-collapsed dome roof dwarfing us as we walked around its circumference.
“I never knew about this.” I told Boulaem, “Not even this morning did I know about this place. More people have to come here.”
Boulaem nodded his head, suggesting they would. “The image of Algeria is dark, but it’s getting better.”
After a few more days in Algiers, it seemed Boulaem was right. Algeria’s future seems brighter than any time in recent memory. After nearly 30 years of delays, for instance, the city’s 8.4-mile-long subway finally opened in 2011—and two new extensions and five new metro stations were officially opened in April 2018. The underground system is a major point of pride for Algerians, who join Cairo as one of only two cities on the entire African continent that boasts its own subway.
Evidence of development is above ground too, in the most surprising places. On the ride back to airport, we drove passed a gleaming tower. The taxi driver told us it would soon be the world’s tallest minaret, extending from the center of a massive 65,000 square foot large mosque.
The mosque, which is being built by the government, is slated to be completed later this year and in the words of Ahmed Madani, an adviser to the Minister of Housing that’s responsible for its construction, the complex, with a museum, Koranic school, and one-million book library “...will be an emblem of moderate Islam in Algeria and a shield against all forms of extremism.”
In other words, the mosque—which thanks to its prime location is sure to be spotted by international travelers making their way downtown—is a welcome sign to visitors and locals alike: the war is over, the terrorists lost, Algeria is open for business.
Now, if they can only get their ATMs working.