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Sparsely populated – an obvious consequence of its desert-dominated landscape – the contentious land of Western Sahara has been a matter of serious debate and conflict for decades. When Spain relinquished its colonial hold on the territory in 1975, neighbouring Morocco and Mauritania divided up the land between themselves, ignoring the protest of the Polisario Front, a party dedicated to the national emancipation of the Sahrawi people. To this day, the matter remains unresolved and a point of bitter division, with thousands of Moroccan troops defending their claim and occasional insurgencies led by the Polisario Front.
For these reasons, Western Sahara is hardly a holiday destination. It has been hard for journalists and human rights delegates to travel there – let alone tourists.
The earliest recorded inhabitants of the Western Sahara were agriculturalists called the Bafour. The Bafour were later replaced or absorbed by Berber-speaking populations which eventually merged in turn with migrating Arab tribes, although it is clear from the historical record that the Arabic-speaking majority in the Western Sahara descend from Berber tribes that adopted Arabic over time. Islam arrived during the 8th century.
After an agreement among the European colonial powers at the Berlin Conference in 1884 on the division of spheres of influence in Africa, Spain seized control of the Western Sahara and established it as a Spanish protectorate after a series of wars against the local tribes. As time went by, Spanish colonial rule began to unravel with the general wave of decolonization after World War II. After initially being violently opposed to decolonization, Spain began to give in and by 1974–75 issued promises of a referendum on independence. The nascent Polisario Front, a nationalist organization that had begun fighting the Spanish in 1973, had been demanding such a move.
From that time, both Morocco and Mauritania made claims of the Western Sahara, both moving in from the north and souh respectively. The Moroccan and Mauritanian moves, however, met staunch opposition from the Polisario, which had by now gained backing from Algeria. In 1979, following Mauritania's withdrawal due to pressure from Polisario, Morocco extended its control to the rest of the territory, and gradually contained the guerrillas through setting up the extensive sand-berm in the desert to exclude guerilla fighters. Hostilities ceased in a 1991 cease-fire, overseen by the peacekeeping mission MINURSO, under the terms of a UN Settlement Plan.
Since then, constent debate, struggle and protest haven't made any differences, as Western Sahara is still considered territory of Morocco and independence conform the demands of the Polisario Front is still far away and not to be expected on short notice.
Western Sahara is located in Northern Africa, bordering the Atlantic Ocean, between Mauritania and Morocco. It also borders Algeria for 42 kilometres to the northeast. It covers 266,060 km². The land is some of the most arid and inhospitable on the planet. The land along the coast is low, flat desert and rises, especially in the north, to small mountains reaching up to 600 metres on the eastern side. While the area can experience flash flooding in the spring, there are no permanent streams. At times a cool off-shore current can produce fog and heavy dew.
Western Sahara is divided into 4 provinces (wilayas)
Driving? Yes, to leave the state as soon as possible. Most of the country is mined, the landscape is impressive but monotonous and after all, it is a very popular route from Europe towards West Africa. Still, if you like desert landscapes and good tarred roads, this is the country for you. Roads from Morocco towards Mauritania are now paved almost all the way and a few inland roads are paved as well.
The coastal area has a number of shipwrecks on the beaches where the Sahara starts immediately. There are quiet a few and for a quick impression visit this website.
There are not many specific events and festivals in this sparsely populated region. If you are in one of the few cities and towns, check locally if there is something worth going to.
The Western Sahara has a desert climate with generally hot, dry and sunny conditions. Temperatures along the coast are somewhat tempered and generally are between 25 °C and 30 °C during the day and between 15 °C and 20 °C at night. Inland, temperatures during summer (June to September) can be much higher, averaging around 40 °C, but close to 50 °C is possible. With winds blowing directly east from the Sahara, also the coast gets its fair share of hot days above 40 °C. Inland, winter nights can be rather chilly, especially in the north along the border with Morocco. Rainfall is sparse and unreliable but usually summers are virtually rainless while most of the rainy days are between November and March, but only a few each month.
Hassan Airport (EUN) near El Aaiún receives most international flights, mainly from Agadir and Casablanca in Morocco (Royal Air Maroc and Regional Airlines) and to and from Las Palmas and several other seasonal flights from cities in Spain. Air Algérie has flights as well. Other than that there are not many options. Infrequent flights connect Dakhla with Agadir and Casablanca as well.
The route from Morocco to West Africa travels through the Western Sahara and is getting more and more popular now that almost the entire road is paved all the way to Mauritania. You don't need a 4wd car to get you there, a regular car will be fine. Be sure to have you papers and insurance in order though. You can take rental cars from Morocco to Western Sahara and as Morocco treats the region as domestic part of the country, there are no formal designated borders.
Buses travel between both Dakhla and Laayoun towards Moroccan cities like Agadir and Casablanca, but it takes a long time to get there and flying is preferable. CTM has buses on these route, stopping in Tarfaya, Tan Tan, Goulmime and a few other places en route.
There are no boats between Western Sahara and other countries.
The main roads along the coast is paved all the way from Morocco to Mauritania and in a good shape. Don't wander of this road or several other major roads, as there is always the risk of landmines. Rental cars are available at the international airport or in Dakhla and El Auin. Most visitors travelling around by car though have brought there own car from Europe or rented a car in Morocco. Check policies before entering though. Traffic drives on the right and you need an international driving permit.
Buses like at least Dakhla and El Auin on a daily basis. Minibuses and shared taxis also ply the main routes between cities and towns, but as there are few people living in the country, there is not always sufficient demand.
The only boat that you are likely to take will be a local fisherman's boat, but other than that there are no services.
As Morocco considers the Western Sahara as its territory and there aren't even official border controls with the country, the same regulations apply:
Citizens of the following countries do not require a visa for a stay of up to 90 days:
Algeria, Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bahrain, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Republic of Congo, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Guinea (Conakry), Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Ivory Coast, Japan, Kuwait, Latvia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Mali, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Niger, Norway, Oman, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Puerto Rico, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Singapore (up to one month only), Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United States of America, Venezuela. (Source: Consulate-General of Morocco in New York)
Permissions to extend a stay must be requested from the nearest Police Precinct in Morocco.
All others are required to obtain visas of single or double entries, and a stay of up to 90 days.
See also Money Matters
The official currency is the Moroccan Dirham (MAD). One dirham is equivalent with 100 santimat (singular: santim).
There's little work for travellers in this part of the world.
Dakhla and Laayoun are the main cultural centres and have schools.
The native language of the majority is Hassaniya Arabic, which is mutually unintelligible with Standard Arabic. Moroccan Arabic is also widely spoken, and is the lingua franca on the streets and the workplace because of the many Moroccans residing in the country. However, unlike in most Arab countries, Standard Arabic is not widely understood, and this applies even more for English, so one cannot survive without good knowledge of Hassaniya or Moroccan Arabic. Also the literacy level is much lower than that of Morocco, which is 50%, so you will have to speak rather than write. Some old signs are still written in Spanish. The Sahrawi population living in the refugee camps located in Algeria are over 90% literate, and some of the older Sahrawi generation still speak Spanish. As a consequence of Moroccan occupation, French can be used with a small business class.
Most restaurants are located in the main cities of Dakhla and Laayoun.
In the main cities and towns you'll find hotels ranging from luxury to very basic. Some camping is available around these cities too.
Traditional Sahrawi hospitality includes the serving of tea to all guests in one's home.
See also Travel Health
There are no legal requirements regarding vaccinations. Still, it's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Western Sahara. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also both hepatitis A as well as typhoid would be recommended.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Malaria is very rare, only in a few remote oases. Don't underestimate this tropical disease and take precautions. Buy repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
Most travellers won't have any trouble travelling in Western Sahara. The main thing to remember is not to wander of the main roads, because mines are still a severe risk, despite recent clearing of areas.
Teleboutiques and internet cafes are not hard to find in the cities, but connection speed may vary from place to place.
See also International Telephone Calls
Ask Alan1950 a question about Western Sahara
Travelled through from Morocco to Mauritania
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