In a rare consensus between usually disparate advisories, most of the developed world issued warnings this week against traveling to Timbuktu and much of Mali.
The announcement couldn’t have come at a worse time for Mali tourism. January is the month of the growingly popular Festival in the Desert, Africa’s largest annual rock concert. Officials for the concert insist it’s going ahead, but a number of performers are already canceling.
Several countries, including Canada and France, make a serious distinction between many of the more developed areas along the Niger River west of Timbuktu, explaining that those seem to be OK to visit. But the UK and US were less sanguine and issued much more serious warnings.
The U.S. warning, in fact, specifically restricts any U.S. government employee or subcontractor from visiting these regions – including Timbuktu – without “prior authorization.” This is the highest level of American warning.
The problems began last January when a group of travelers exploring a remote part of the Sahara Desert far north of Timbuktu were kidnapped. The kidnappers claimed to be “Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb” and later killed one of the hostages, Edwin Dyer, a British national. The British travel office said in its November 20 warning that “further kidnap attacks are likely.”
Since the January incident, tourism in Mali had fallen by 50% but had begun to slowly recover. These announcements are likely to seriously impede any recovery.
The January incident led to Mali government military actions in the remote Saharan frontiers, and much more serious gun battles occurred than were expected. None of these were reported as Al-Qaeda incidents, but rather “Tuareg rebel groups” which are much more likely organized bandits than terrorists.