Maroua (Cameroon) (AFP) - Tourists once flocked to the rugged far north of Cameroon for its wildlife and spectacular scenery, until cross-border raids by the Nigerian Islamist extremists of Boko Haram all but halted such visits.
"Before, we had many tourists, but people are afraid to come now," said Moussa Ali, who has a stall in the craft market at Maroua, the main town of the Extreme North region, a strip of territory between Nigeria to the west and Chad to the east.
A handful of potential customers, mainly Cameroonians, stopped to look at Ali's stand, but he said that he could "go for two weeks without a single sale. It was above all the white people who gave us a living".
In the dry season from October to March, the Waza National Park, famous for its elephants, giraffes and antelope, drew several thousand visitors each year, until fear of Boko Haram activity dried up the flow almost two years ago.
The visitors often included expatriates living in the capital Yaounde and the economic hub of Douala, a major port city. Others came from the Chadian capital N'Djamena, which is not far away.
Hikers used to enjoy the high plateau of the Mandara mountains, a breathtaking lunar landscape where tall rocky outcrops stand out as far as the eye can see.
"You'll cross the border without even knowing it," local guides used to tell visitors until the far side of the frontier was considered dangerous and security forces declared the area a "red zone".
'The army reassures us'
A further blow in a region previously considered remote but peaceful came with the kidnappings in 2013 of a French family of seven, including four children, then of another Frenchman, Georges Vandenbeusch, both claimed by Boko Haram.
The hostages were freed but the incidents brought tourism to a standstill. It had been a key source of income for many villages across the region.
Maroua and its population of more than 200,000 is also hard hit by the decline in tourism, which gave secondary work to many people in the informal sector.
Trader Ali said he was "no longer afraid. The army reassures us. Since there have been a lot of soldiers in town, we feel safe."
But another trader, Amadou Bachirou, warned that "Boko Haram aren't far away. They hide out in the bush, we know it." Bachirou lost several members of his family when the Islamists attacked the Nigerian border town of Banki in September.
"The impact is catastrophic in economic terms," said ministry of tourism spokesman Serge Eric Epoune. "Tourism and crafts are a dead end, and let's not even talk about the hotel business."
"The whole region is being stigmatised in the Western media. There is an exaggerated panic, since only a very small part of the Extreme North is affected by insecurity caused by Boko Haram," Epoune added.
On its website, the French foreign ministry urges French nationals to stay clear not only of the Extreme North, but also of the North and Adamaoua provinces to the south.
"All French people still present in this zone are urged to leave as soon as possible," Paris stated, warning that their safety "is no longer ensured".
"Things were already difficult because Cameroon is not a destination that comes naturally to tourists, but now it's worse. People really tend to confuse Cameroon and Boko Haram," according to Annick Tchan Gang, who heads a French travel agency in Yaounde. She hadn't sold a trip to the north "for months", she added.
- 'Path to traditional chiefdoms' -
"Yet this country is still exceptional, like a miniature version of all of Africa," ranging from dense tropical forest in the south to great sandy beaches in the west and arid savannah in the north, said the French woman, who has lived in Cameroon for almost 25 years.
With the far north virtually shut down, travel agencies have taken to offering cultural tours such as "the path to traditional chiefdoms and kingdoms" or encounters with the pygmy people living deep in the forest.
People of the Extreme North feel abandoned. Even before the Boko Haram raids, the barren region where farmers grow cotton and millet figured a low 65 percent on the poverty scale of the United Nations Development Programme in a 2010 report. The contrast is stark with the south and the west, where the economy is far more dynamic.
Local people also suffer from an end to trade with Nigeria, which provided a large number of key goods and manufactured products when cross-border activity was easy. Petrol was much sought after, while today there are often shortages.
Even aid and infrastructure projects have ground to a halt. Work to repair one of the main roads in the north, which has fallen into a poor state, has been closed down since 10 Chinese workers were abducted at Waza last May. The men were later freed, but the construction site remains abandoned.