30 Oct 2018
Douz, Tunisia
Sustainable Tourism

A newborn camel staggers into a brutal sandstorm sweeping across southern Tunisia. Abandoned deep inside the Sahara, a swift end to its short life is guaranteed. Then several Bedouin cameleers emerge from the swirling yellowness to save the day, backed by a group of excited foreign tourists. Juanita Reimer nominates the camel’s improbable rescue as a standout moment from eight years of owning Sahha Sahara, a locally run sustainable tour company. “How we just happened to be in that spot is a miracle in itself,” she said.

Sahha Sahara strives to improve living conditions in southern Tunisia for more than stricken baby camels, providing much-needed jobs to local communities. “[The company] gives work and money to real people of the south who are poor and often forgotten,” said Reimer. Camel treks and driving tours allow visitors to experience the Tunisian desert in an environmentally conscious setting, ensuring the region’s enchanting dunes remain pristine for years to come.

An alarming wealth gap has emerged between Tunisia’s cities and rural areas, with around two-thirds of the country’s population living in urban zones. Desert tourism offers one avenue of employment for Bedouin and Berber groups in the Sahara, but visitor numbers dropped off sharply after 2011’s Arab Spring and terrorist attacks in 2015. Tunisia has tried to stimulate its sluggish economy by ramping up heavy industries like phosphate mining, a move that has attracted international criticism for causing environmental damage.

Sahha Sahara is an eco-friendly option for rural communities to revive their battered local economy. The company’s tours leave only compostable waste behind in the desert. Reimer also insists on paying good wages to local staff, which reduces the incentive for guides to cut environmental corners. She hopes that this model will influence Tunisia’s overall desert tourism sector. “[We are] showing other agencies that sustainable tourism can work, as long as you have respect for the people whom you work with and the environment.”

Into the desert:

Based on her background, Reimer may seem an unlikely champion of remote desert communities in southern Tunisia. Once a social worker and belly dance instructor in her native Vancouver, Canada — a rainforest city noted for varied landscapes, but definitely not for sprawling desert — Reimer abruptly relocated to a tiny Tunisian village in 2007.

Reimer’s new life gave her precious little reason to move back home. “I felt incredibly lucky to have found such a rich culture, and I wanted to share it with the world,” she said. But Reimer was also struck by the poverty engulfing the region, which motivated her to hold fundraising events and generate donations online.

Reimer conceived of Sahha Sahara as a more permanent way to alleviate poverty in southern Tunisia. She founded the company in 2010, amid nosediving tourist numbers due to the Tunisian revolution and associated uncertainty. “It was the worst time to begin a tourism business,” Reimer said, “but I took a chance in order to provide much-needed work for my friends.”

Since then, Sahha Sahara has offered a range of desert tours of varying length and difficulty. Visitors can take a short camel ride on the “A Night in the Sahara” package, or they can saddle up for the gruelling, 15-day “Nomad Silk Trade Route” trek. Another option is to take in southern Tunisia by car, with the option of being collected from nearby Djerba and Tozeur airports.

Reimer insists on her guests receiving genuine exposure to local culture, which she views as integral to Sahha Sahara’s mission of sustainability. “[Sahha Sahara helps to] to preserve and respect Berber and Bedouin cultures, emphasizing that cultural diversity is a positive thing for the world,” she said.

Empowerment and environmentalism:

Reimer fears that not all tour companies take the same attitude to empowering communities in southern Tunisia. “Many agencies get a lot of money while local people get almost nothing,” she said. This presents a key challenge for Sahha Sahara, given that its competitors have lower operating costs and can offer cheaper packages aimed at mass tourism.

Sahha Sahara is also working hard to change local perceptions of environmentalism. Reimer makes great efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of her tours, and must show her Tunisian colleagues that this eco-friendly ethos makes business sense too. As she puts it, her ongoing project is to “help local people understand the long-term effect [of their actions] to the planet and to tourism, when their first priority is just to feed their families and eke out a living.”

Another obstacle looms over tourism throughout the Middle East — international anxiety about the region’s instability. Reimer reports that she feels safer in her adopted Tunisian home than she did in Canada, and would not invite family and friends to visit her if serious safety risks were involved. That message may slowly be sinking in, as Tunisia has finally started receiving more tourists following the post-Arab Spring downturn.

In the meantime, Sahha Sahara relies on feedback from tourists who have come to southern Tunisia and been just as enthralled by warm hospitality as by picturesque desert landscapes. “Many guests initially say that they came on one of our treks [to experience] the Sahara,” Reimer said, “but they left with a wonderful connection with the Bedouin cameleers.”


Learn more about Sahha Sahara through its website, Facebook, TripAdvisor and YouTube.

Photos courtesy of Sahha Sahara

Since getting his MA in Middle Eastern Studies last year, David has worked as a freelance journalist in Accra, Ghana and Cairo, Egypt.David Wood
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