A Traveler’s Handbook: Introduction to Algeria
Officially known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria, this North African country is considered the second largest country on the entire African continent and the largest on the Mediterranean Sea. The capitol city is Algiers. In the past, Algeria was a popular tourist destination until the civil war in 1992 brought the tourism industry down. Tourist arrivals started to improve by small increments beginning early 2000, when the Sahara region covered by Algerian territory was opened to tourists.
Despite the lack of tourists, Algeria is a fascinating country. Places of interest include the regions of Tassili N’Ajjer and Hoggar, both listed as UNESCO Heritage Sites, where local color is rife in the everyday lives of traditional Algerian tribes. There is also the Algiers, where the old school and the modern meet to showcase an interesting mix of Algeria’s colonial past and hopeful present. Timimoun provides visitors a slice of the Sahara desert while in Sajah is made interesting by the sand dunes that divide the region into two.
Because of its geographical location, the weather in Algeria is mildly wet during winters but can get extremely hot and dry during summers. To enjoy the coastal area, it is recommended that you travel during the months of spring and summer. On the other hand, the Saharan region is best enjoyed between the late autumn and early spring months of November and April.
Algeria’s population is comprised of 99% Arab/Berber, and less than 1% European heritage. Although almost all Algerians are Berber in origin (not Arab), only a minority identify themselves as Berber, about 15% of the total population. These people live mostly in the mountainous region of Kabylie east of Algiers. They are also Muslim but identify with their Berber rather than Arab cultural heritage. The Berbers have long agitated, sometimes violently, for autonomy. The government is unlikely to grant autonomy but has offered to begin sponsoring teaching Berber language in schools. The population as a whole is 99% Sunni Muslim, and 1% Christian and Jewish. Sunni Islam is the recognized state religion.
Algeria has the largest French-speaking population outside of France. Arabic is the official language and you will encounter the Berber dialect here. The educational system is similar to the French system.
Algeria’s economy remains dominated by the state, a legacy of the country’s socialist post-independence development model. Gradual liberalization since the mid-1990s has opened up more of the economy, but in recent years Algeria has imposed new restrictions on foreign involvement in its economy and largely halted the privatization of state-owned industries.
Hydrocarbons have long been the backbone of the economy, accounting for roughly 60% of budget revenues, 30% of GDP, and over 95% of export earnings. Algeria has the eighth-largest reserves of natural gas in the world and is the fourth-largest gas exporter. It ranks 16th in oil reserves. Thanks to strong hydrocarbon revenues, Algeria has a cushion of $150 billion in foreign currency reserves and a large hydrocarbon stabilization fund. In addition, Algeria’s external debt is extremely low at about 1% of GDP.
Algeria has struggled to develop industries outside of hydrocarbons in part because of high costs and an inert state bureaucracy. In 2010, Algeria began a five-year, $286 billion development program to update the country’s infrastructure and provide jobs.
Algeria’s main agricultural products include wheat, barley, oats, grapes, olives, citrus, fruits; sheep, cattle. Industrial products include petroleum, natural gas, light industries, mining, electrical, petrochemical, and food processing. High unemployment, particularly among the young, is a major issue facing the government.