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ALGIERS – Algeria is an emerging tourist destination which is spreading the word to potential visitors that the image of a country overshadowed by extremist violence is out of date, the tourism minist

ALGIERS – Algeria is an emerging tourist destination which is spreading the word to potential visitors that the image of a country overshadowed by extremist violence is out of date, the tourism minister said in an interview.

Oil and gas producer Algeria has thousands of kilometres (miles) of Mediterranean beaches and vast tracts of Sahara desert wilderness, but it attracts far fewer tourists than smaller neighbours Morocco and Tunisia.

A conflict between government forces and Islamist militants that, according to some estimates, killed 200,000 people has now been reduced to a few sporadic attacks. But its legacy is still discouraging many people from visiting.

“I think this is an image which is out of touch because the black years are behind us,” Tourism and Environment Minister Cherif Rahmani told Reuters, referring to the peak of the violence in the 1990s.

“All that is left in the mind is a certain number of traces which must absolutely be rubbed out,” he said on the sidelines of a tourism fair in the Algerian capital.

“The most important thing is to speak with a lot of clarity … to speak the truth and to establish a language of trust to tell things as they are and how they should be.”

“LOTS OF PROMISE”

Algeria is keen to develop its tourism industry to reduce both unemployment and the economy’s dependence on oil and gas exports.

An International Monetary Fund report on Algeria last month said the fall in oil prices caused by the global downturn “underscores the need to diversify the economy, including a reduction in the fiscal dependence on hydrocarbon resources.”

Last year Algeria attracted 1.7 million tourists, according to official figures, compared with the eight million people who visited Morocco and seven million tourists who went to Tunisia.

There was no breakdown of numbers but in past years about 70 percent of visitors were Algerian emigres visiting relatives.

Rahmani said Algeria was not trying to compete with its neighbours, but was planning to carve out a bigger niche in the international market.

“Ours is an emerging tourism, a tourism under construction with lots of promise. We have a strategy, we have a coherent vision,” the minister said.

Earlier this year the government announced a package of tax breaks, low-interest loans and subsidised land to try to encourage investment in new hotels and resorts.

Bachir Djeribi, an Algerian tour operator and chairman of the National Union of Travel Agents, said he expected tourist numbers this season to be up by 30 or 40 percent.

He said even more visitors would come if procedures for issuing visas were streamlined and European governments updated their travel advice to take account of the reduced violence.

When foreign tour operators visit Algeria “they discover that Algeria is not the Algeria they see on television and read about in the newspapers … You can travel around Algeria in complete safety,” he said.