Niche tourism has developed around kitesurfing and is now attracting a rich clientele of all nationalities to this area that is still waiting for the resolution of its international status.
In the lagoon of Dakhla, in the heart of the Sahara, it is teeming with kitesurfers: the garrison town on a windy coast has become a privileged place for kitesurfers. “There’s nothing here but sun, wind and waves. We’ve turned the adversity of the elements into advantages, that’s the very principle of kitesurfing,” smiles Rachid Roussafi. After an international career in kitesurfing, the 49-year-old Moroccan athlete set up the first tourist camp on the lagoon at the beginning of 2000. “At that time, only one plane a week landed at Dakhla,” compared to 25 today, including two direct flights to Europe, he stresses.
“Dakhla has become a world kitesurfing destination,” says Mohamed Cherif, elected representative of the regional body set up by Morocco. The number of tourists has increased from 25,000 in 2010 to 100,000 today and the goal is “to reach 200,000”. Because kitesurfing requires expensive equipment – in addition to the surfboard, the kite and the harness – the niche tourism developed around this sport attracts a rich clientele of all nationalities to this area.
Peyo Camillade came from France to “extend the season in the sun”, for a week that cost him about 1,500 euros. Only mile markers such as “PK 25”, the ruins of the forts or the imposing military buildings of Dakhla remind us of the armed conflict with which Morocco and the Polisario Front were confronted until 1991.
Former Spanish colony
Morocco controls 80% of this former Spanish colony – including Dakhla – which historically considers it its own colony and claims autonomy under its sovereignty. The peacekeepers of the United Nations were deployed, among other things, to monitor the status quo along the buffer zone that separates the two parties.
Hotels have been sprouting up along National Highway 1, which runs from the port of Tangier 2,000 kilometers to the north to the Mauritanian border 350 kilometers to the south. Buildings are in popping up everywhere and the rows of lampposts planted in the wasteland herald future developments.
“The secret of success is the development of kitesurfing with good communication aimed at the organization of non-political events,” says Driss Senoussi, head of the hotel group Dakhla Attitude. For example, the exploits of champions such as the Brazilian Mikaili Sol or the Cape Verdean Airton Cozzolino were broadcast in abundance on social networks during the annual event of the World Championships held from 4 to 13 October.
This strategy is not new: “The Moroccan army started inviting foreign surfers to Dakhla in the 1980s, as soon as the front line moved south, to show that the area was safe,” recalls Jean-Pierre, 80, a former member of the Rabat club who participated in some of these events. The residents of Dakhla are not very fond of surfing: only a few youngsters and families taking a stroll were on the beach for the final of the 2019 World Kite-Surfing Circuit.
Crime of Colonization
Tourists, on the other hand, seldom visit the center of the town, with a population of 100,000, which focuses on fishing, trade and tourism. Like many, Alexandra Paterek, a 31-year-old Polish hostess, stays in her hotel complex to enjoy the “best place in the world for beginners in kitesurfing”. What else does she know about the region? “It’s an old Spanish colony, the seafood is excellent and we’re close to Mauritania,” she laughs.
This legitimization of the Moroccan presence irritates the Polisario front, which in 2018 tried unsuccessfully to prosecute companies “complicit in the military occupation”, such as the airline Transavia, a subsidiary of Air France, or the organizer of the sports trips UCPA, which markets the destination “Dakhla, Morocco”. Having its complaints about the ‘crime of colonization’, rejected the independence movement is now denouncing the trade agreements between Morocco and the European Union, which includes Western Sahara, according to its French lawyer, Gilles Devers.
For their part, the Moroccan authorities are actively seeking investors for their development projects, the most ambitious of which is the mega-port of “Dakhla Atlantique”, with a budget of about one billion dollars (about 900 million euros) for the development of sea fishing.
In the lagoon “there is a struggle between the development of aquaculture and tourism. One has less impact on the environment, but the other generates more income and jobs,” says a senior regional official. With the influx of tourists, environmental protection has become an important issue. We have settled in a virgin area,” says Roussafi. Everything has developed so quickly. Today we have to treat plastic waste and solve the problem of waste water fast.