Tourism in the Maghreb during the Colonial Period: a Serious Historical Subject?
Today, doing research on tourism has become acceptable. With its corollaries such as the study of leisure and vacation, tourism has now found a place among valid fields of history. But working on tourism during colonialism is another thing altogether…Imperial domination generated so many injustices, iniquities, and violence that studying tourism seems to be rather superficial. Moreover, at first glance it seems it would add nothing to our understanding of societies under imperialism.
Furthermore, one might object that, according to the geographers and sociologists who have studied tourism for many years, the phenomenon only started in the 1960s, or even later, when a mass-tourism economy was created. So why persist in following tourists through nineteenth-century Algeria, or Morocco and Tunisia in the 1920s?
Tracking the Tourist in the Colonies
The reasons are simple. First, we would stress that colonial societies, as all societies, are complex structures that must be analyzed in their entirety. Tourism was part of the colonial world, and even had a rather important place in that world. Second, we argue that mass tourism, in Europe as elsewhere, was preceded by an elite sort of tourism, aristocratic and bourgeois. Although smaller in number, these tourists sparked the emergence of an economic sector, transformed certain cities, and haunted the collective imagination of millions of people. For example, before becoming a large seaside resort in the 1960s, at the turn of the twentieth century Hammamet (Tunisia) was a city for spending the winter season.
Thus, in 2003 we started with these assumptions to launch our attack on this vast subject that remained unexplored ten years ago: the history of tourism in colonial North Africa. Twelve years later, where have we reached? From the outset, our goal was to avoid reducing tourism to its cultural aspects, such as guides, posters and travel books, but rather to write a ‘total’ history—and yes, we use the term total intentionally. Tourism generates policies involving a host of public and private actors and the economy; hence we think it is justified to focus on the interactions among multiple actors.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the colonial authorities quickly understood the benefits they could derive from tourism by showcasing ‘French contributions.’ They wanted travelers to bring back a memory of the ‘positive’ actions of France in the region. For this reason, the Governors-Generals of Algeria as well as the residents of Tunisia and especially Lyautey, in Morocco, closely followed everything concerning the growth of tourism. In this, the military also played a key role in developing the Sahara for tourism.
In addition to the political world, town councilors and local businesspeople gravitated around, who thought tourism was going to be the business of the future. Some subdivided their coastal properties and conjured up seaside resorts, such as Fort de l’Eau and Bouisseville in Algeria. Others started building hotels. Powerful transport companies also played a fundamental role, such as the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique. Like its rivals, it launched the idea of circuit tickets through Algeria in the 1880s and automobile tours in the 1920s. Its subsidiary, the Société des Voyages et des Hôtels Nord-Africains, built 44 luxury hotels across the Maghreb, even in the Sahara!
From Wintering in the Belle Époque to Modern Tourists in Shorts
All these fairies gathered around the cradle, did they help tourism to develop? The answer is nuanced. Arguably, the tourism established by the end of the nineteenth century helped fix the tourist map of these regions—one only has to compare the Blue Guide of the time with its contemporary counterpart. The Maghreb has long attracted a significant number of tourists. In addition to the famous travelers, there were the colonists who came to spend the winter on the heights of Algiers, at Mustapha superior, or in the suburbs of Tunis. In the 1890s, Biskra, promoted by local capitalist companies, was a much-sought after destination for the jet set of the time.
After this elitist tourism stalled following the First World War, a more bourgeois sort of tourism developed in the interwar period. After 1945, in the Maghreb and elsewhere, people tried to develop popular tourism or « tourists in shorts, » brought in by organizations such as Tourisme et Travail. Saharan tourism in particular took off during the interwar period, supported by the political authorities when the road linking the two parts of the French empire in Africa was being built. Lined with hotels, this road became a key element in French imperial policy of the 1930s and became even more important and frequented during the Algerian war, when the desert was covered with petrol complexes.
Tourism in North Africa was only not sustained by foreign travelers but also by indigenous tourists. Algeria, relatively established as a settler colony, saw a culture of hiking develop among the so-called French of Algeria. It was increasingly toward these targets that various institutions tried to develop tourism. Members of the local elite were also involved, such as those who joined the Algerian Touring Club in the early twentieth century. Before the Great War, holiday centers began to be created in Tunisia for French civil servants. These landscapes and places, such as Ain Draham, were designed to remind them of the home country to allow them to ‘regenerate’ and to encourage them to spend their holidays in the colony.
From the 1930s, Tunisians, both Muslims and Jews, followed suit. They left the city in the summer for the beaches in Hammam-Lif and La Goulette, or to take in the waters at Korbous. This is an aspect of our continuing research that is fascinating: the impact of tourism on the local population, in terms of integration into the process (as tourists, guides, hotels owners, etc.) and on local people’s representations. Finally, tourism has close ties with the movement of patrimonialization that grew stronger at the end of the nineteenth century. Archeological sites, which are so numerous in North Africa and the ancient cities, began to be protected in order to offer them in all their beauty to tourists. Algiers then Tunis and Morocco’s imperial cities (Lyautey paid special attention to this in 1912) were thus frozen in the past. The urban landscape of Tunis was protected by architect Valensi (1920), as was that of the small nearby town of Sidi Bou Said, where the Baron Erlanger resided.
Tourism, far from being superficial, is at the heart of the colonial context. It helped justify the imperial presence, it reshaped urban and rural landscapes, and it may even have increased tensions. Tourism in North Africa, at least for Algeria, experienced the same stages of development as in Europe. Moreover, in the imperial system with tourism, ideas moved from one point to another and networks were established: such as political networks of French civil servants who were sent from one end of the empire to another, and chambers of commerce who organized the economic networks of large transport companies at the scale of the Maghreb.
Crédits image à la Une : CC Wikimedia Commons Trialsanderrors