Tourism is minimal in Chad, one of Africa's poorest countries. Two areas have recently been designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. We ask desert researcher Stefan Kröpelin how that status can benefit Chad.
Deutsche Welle: Dr. Kröpelin, You advocated making two areas in Chad World Heritage sites: first, in 2012, the Lakes of Ounianga, followed in 2016 by the Ennedi Massif. The impetus came from you. Why did you want UNESCO status for these sites in Chad?
Stefan Kröpelin: Because both places are unique: the largest, most interesting lakes in the middle of the Sahara and the enchanting Ennedi Plateau. It was clear that we had to aim for the very top and not just content ourselves with biosphere reserve status. Only by recognition as World Heritage sites could they receive the greatest possible protection, because of UNESCO's strict criteria and progress monitoring. That increases their chances of international funding for their protection measures.
The Ennedi Plateau is as large as Switzerland and cut through by deep canyons. Because of favorable groundwater conditions and high amounts of rainfall, an incredible variety of flora and fauna have survived in the middle of the desert. They include the last desert crocodiles, which have withstood many thousands of years of drought in the pools of water in the canyons. There are also fish, Barbary sheep, gazelles and baboons. At the same time, the pools are used by camel breeders and nomads to water their dromedaries, goats and donkeys. When hundreds of camels start to bellow in a canyon, you feel as if you're in Jurassic Park.
Just under one tenth of World Heritage sites lie in Africa, because the application process is lengthy and expensive. These applications began in 1999, and Chad supported you on every level from the very first: a huge effort for one of the world's poorest countries. How did you convince Chad?
I would say that both sites in Chad are, on balance, among the cheapest World Heritage projects that ever came about. Altogether it certainly cost well under a million euros. My background research in Chad within the framework of the German Research Foundation's collaborative research centre, in contrast, cost more. Without this research the applications never would have come about. That's why they're so grateful to me in Chad and continue to say so.
The advantage in Chad is that there is a relatively small, influential class of ambassadors, ministers and university professors whom one can get together quickly in the capital N’Djaména. It was slightly more difficult in the case of Ennedi because two administrative zones and several villages had to reach agreement. All in all, it went quite quickly compared to other countries.
I became friends with Dr. Baba Mallaye early on. He was the director of Chad's national council and is now responsible for the World Heritage sites. Together, we were able to convince the policymakers in countless conversations that World Heritage designation is a useful instrument to raise awareness in a country for regions that are scarcely known and worthy of protection, and thus improve its international image.
How exactly does it benefit the people who live in the desert?
First, all tourists have to pay a certain sum to the indigenous people for every day of their stay, which wasn't the case in the past. Moreover, World Heritage status also involves government investment in the local infrastructure. That ranges from funding for local action groups to schools and medical care, to sanitation facilities and waste removal. As in all other African nature reserves and national parks, without discernible improvements in living conditions, no lasting support from the local inhabitants can be ensured.
In the medium term, it opens up the chances of attracting foreign investors to the country, especially in the sustainable tourism sector. That works best with new World Heritage sites. It creates jobs and promotes local handicrafts.
How have the local people received the designation?
When Ounianga became a World Heritage site in 2012, the people were completely beside themselves. In the middle of UNESCO's map of the world was their green dot as a World Heritage site - they could hardly believe it. Moreover, with that designation, national pride developed all over the country. Many think: We're the poorest of the poor, who live in one of the economically poorest countries in the world under the worst of conditions, but we have these superb sites. Every child is proud of them! People are happy and hope that more tourism will come and the promised infrastructure measures, which have already begun to be implemented, will continue.
Has World Heritage status helped in further developing tourism?
When the first World Heritage site was designated in 2012, hopes were, in fact, high. Directors of French tour companies came and investors from the US flew around and had great plans to build hotels in Ounianga.
The French charter company Point-Afrique spent a lot of money to have the former military airport repaired in Faya, the main oasis in northern Chad, and established a direct air link from Marseille. After a four-and-a-half-hour flight you basically landed in the foothills of the Tibesti mountains, and from there it was one or two days to the Ounianga Lakes. But then came the war in Libya and France's intervention in Mali. Because of the instability in the entire region in northern Africa, the French foreign ministry put extreme pressure on French tour operators to prevent any French tourists going to the Sahara, including Chad. Travel warnings were issued for Chad, especially about the risk to French citizens of kidnapping and attacks. Tourists stayed away; the flights to Faya ended. Chad had offered subsidies to have the flights reinstated, but it never happened.
As a climate researcher and geologist, you've undertaken more than 60 expeditions to the Sahara, a large proportion of them in the desert regions in northern Chad. What makes those regions so fascinating to you?
The abundance of different landscapes, many of which are far from being completely explored, because they're extremely remote, arid and untouched. And the people are the toughest in the entire Sahara. The Tibesti are the Sahara's highest mountains. The lakes of Ounianga, as the largest in the Sahara, are World Heritage sites. So is the Ennedi Massif, which is termed the Sahara's "Garden of Eden" because of its flora and fauna, and was also declared a World Heritage site because of its spectacular prehistoric rock paintings.
Do you sometimes meet tourists there?
The Ennedi is a major tourist destination, but there are very few travelers in Chad. Air France provides the only direct international air link from Europe. On the ground, in N'Djamena, there are basically only two tour operators. One is run by Italians with Chadian employees. The other is a Chadian company. Both organise most of the trips to the two World Heritage sites Ounianga and Ennedi and offer all the tours that exist in Chad.
In its current travel warning on Chad, the German foreign office speaks of risks concerning traffic, health, attacks and kidnapping. Is Chad really that dangerous?
I've been traveling through the Sahara for more than 40 years. I've had some dodgy experiences, but nothing has ever happened to me. Basically the risk has increased everywhere in Africa, but I would say that right now northern Chad is a relatively quiet island in the Sahara, although it has often been otherwise in the past. In my view, the risk of a traffic accident is much greater than that of attack or something worse, as long as you're traveling with these experienced tour operators. If you're well embedded there, the risk, in particular regarding Ennedi, is absolutely acceptable - as well as the Lakes of Ounianga. But, of course, there's no guarantee anywhere.
What do the efforts of the Chadian tourism organization look like now?
The awarding of World Heritage status goes hand in hand with the development of sustainable tourism. The state-owned Chadian Tourism Office, the O.T.T., is relying on cooperation with the two tour operators in N'Djamena. In Ounianga, construction of accommodation for tourists has begun. In Fada, the main town in the Ennedi region, and also in Bardaï, the main town in the Tibesti region, the country has invested in walled pavilions that are beautiful by local standards. In future local providers with their own all-terrain vehicles should be offering tours and hiking trips in Ounianga and especially in Ennedi. But since the drop in oil prices, Chad's revenues from oil exports have halved, and unfortunately the opportunities to invest in expanding tourism are limited for the time being, because of other urgent priorities.
Has the huge effort to acquire UNESCO World Heritage status been worth it despite that?
Absolutely, because the primary aim was to ensure that these regions are protected for future generations, and Chad is committing itself to that with the World Heritage designations. The success of the two World Heritage sites has also contributed to the support that future projects, especially in Tibesti, are receiving, from local people to the president.
For tourism, the designations mean a chance for the future. In sensitive regions like the ecological niche of the Ennedi and the particularly delicate Ounianga lakes, the only option is specially tailored ecological tourism that takes all requirements into account. That includes tourists not damaging anything. Both tour operators are already making sure of that - for instance, that trees can't be cut down to make campfires the way they used to be, and tourists aren't allowed to deface the rock paintings with grafitti.
For the future, Chad is banking on highly-motivated tourists who value world heritage and are grateful to be allowed to visit these wonders of the Sahara.
With more than sixty expeditions to the Sahara, Dr. Stefan Kröpelin is the best known German expert on deserts. As part of the collaborative research project "Our Way to Europe" in Cologne, the geoscientist is studying climate change in the Sahara and how humans are reacting to it. In 1999, he took the initiative in achieving World Heritage status for two extraordinary desert regions in Chad. On July 3, 2017, the climate researcher was given the Communicator Award by the Donors' Association for the Promotion of Sciences and Humanities in Germany and the German Research Foundation, to honor his longstanding and effective commitment to sharing his research on the Sahara.
The interview was conducted by Frederike Müller.