Disputed Western Sahara becomes kitesurfing hotspot - GulfToday

Disputed Western Sahara becomes kitesurfing hotspot

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A competitor practices kitesurfing at Dakhla beach in Morocco-administered Western Sahara.

In the heart of disputed Western Sahara, a former garrison town has become an unlikely tourist magnet after kitesurfers discovered the windswept desert coast was perfect for their sport.

In Dakhla, an Atlantic seaport town punctuated with military buildings in Morocco-administered Western Sahara, swarms of kitesurfers now sail in the lagoon daily.

"Here there is nothing other than sun, wind and waves. We turned the adversity of the elements to our advantage: that's the very principle of kitesurfing," said Rachid Roussafi.

After an international career in windsurfing and kitesurfing, Roussafi founded the first tourist camp at the lagoon at the start of the 2000s.

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A kitesurfer is seen maneuvering her kite at Dakhla beach in Morocco-administered Western Sahara.

"At the time, a single flight a week landed in Dakhla," the 49-year-old Moroccan said.

Today, there are 25 a week, including direct flights to Europe.

"Dakhla has become a world destination for kitesurfing," said Mohamed Cherif, a regional politician.

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A kitesurfer holds her kite as she walks away at Dakhla beach.

Tourist numbers have jumped from 25,000 in 2010 to 100,000 today, he said, adding they hoped to reach 200,000 annual visitors.

The former Spanish garrison is booming today with the visitor influx adding to fishing and trade revenue.

Kitesurfing requires pricey gear -- including a board, harness and kite -- and the niche tourism spot attracts well-off visitors of all nationalities.

Peyo Camillade came from France "to extend the summer season", with a week's holiday costing about 1,500 euros ($1,660).

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A kitesurfer rides waves at Dakhla beach in Morocco-administered Western Sahara.

Only the names of certain sites, like PK 25 (kilometre point 25), ruined forts in the dunes and the imposing and still in-use military buildings in Dakhla, remind tourists of the region's history of conflict.

Without waiting for the political compromise that the UN has been negotiating for decades, hotels have sprouted from the sand along the coast, and rows of streetlights on vacant lots announce future subdivisions.

'Good communication'

"The secret to success is to develop kitesurfing with good communication focused on the organisation of non-political events," said Driss Senoussi, head of the Dakhla Attitude hotel group.

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With the influx of tourists, the protection of the environment has become a major concern.

Accordingly, the exploits of kitesurfing champions like Brazilian Mikaili Sol and the Cape Verdian Airton Cozzolino were widely shared online during the World Kiteboarding Championships in Dakhla last month.

The competition seemed to hold little interest for Dakhla's inhabitants however.

Only a few young people with nothing to do and strolling families found themselves on the beach for the finals.

Just as rare are the foreign tourists who venture into the town of 100,000 residents to shop.

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In Western Sahara, a former garrison town has become an unlikely tourist magnet.

Environmental concerns

On the lagoon, surrounded by white sand and with its holiday bungalows, "there is a struggle between developing aquaculture and tourism," said a senior regional representative, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"One has less impact on the environment, but the other generates more revenue and jobs," said the representative, adding that "pressure from real-estate investors is very high."

With the influx of tourists, the protection of the environment has become a major concern.

"Everything is developing so quickly... we need to recycle plastic waste and resolve the issue of wastewater," said Rachid Roussafi.

Daniel Bellocq, a retired French doctor, worries for the future of this lagoon, that was "once so wild" that he has kitesurfed in for 20 years.

Agence France-Presse