An Open Letter to Algeria – September 2010

Algeria, I’ve got to be honest, I’m a little disappointed.

I know that things haven’t been easy.  You suffered a terrible civil war in the 1990’s, but thankfully things have been looking up for the last 8 years.  Although much of your tourist industry disappeared due to the war, with the return of peace, it seems like it would be a great time to welcome visitors once again.

Call me crazy, Algeria, but over the last year I had a sudden urge to visit your capital, Algiers.  I had always wanted to visit the casbah and I must admit, a bit sheepishly, that my desire to do so was probably inspired by that song “Rock the Casbah” by the Clash.  In my opinion, it’s their second best song after “London Calling.”  I know it’s a bit silly, but indulge me a bit.    Plus, since I was living in Barcelona for part of the summer and Algiers is just about two hours away by plane, I figured that I should take advantage of proximity and stop by for a few days.

I’ve got to be honest with you and let you know that getting a visa to visit your nation is not a straightforward task.  Having gone through the visa process for tricky nations such as Bhutan and Russia, it takes a lot to surprise me.  Consider me surprised.  There was a lot of paperwork required and the instructions I found on your website were not particularly clear.

Since you have no consulate in Barcelona, I called your embassy in Madrid to make sure that I was doing everything correctly.  In fact, I called three times (I’m a perfectionist).  I learned that your embassy required that I apply for my visa in person and then pick it up three to five days later, also in person.  That’s why I called your embassy a few times.

Before undertaking the expense of travelling twice from Barcelona to Madrid just to get the visa, I wanted to make sure that I had all the details correct for the application.  I’m sure that you can appreciate my desire to make sure I play by the rules – in this case, your rules.   I am happy to report that when I called your embassy, the staff were very helpful and told me that my application appeared complete.  They were also kind enough to confirm to me several times that that embassy would be happy to issue a visa to an American travelling in Spain.

Finally, the big day arrived.  I was in Mallorca for a few days and instead of returning directly to Barcelona, I flew to Madrid instead.  I’ve got to admit to you, Algeria, I actually felt a little nervous.  As I walked up to the window to drop off my passport, I felt as if I was at a junior high dance and I was working up the courage to ask a girl to dance to “Stairway to Heaven.”  Would I be rejected?  I’m pretty sure that you don’t have junior high dances in your country, but you’ve probably seen lots of American films on TV, so you may be able to understand how I was feeling.

Unfortunately, my fears were not unfounded.  As the visa officer examined my papers, he suddenly looked up and informed me that as a US citizen, I would need to apply for the visa in Washington, DC, and that he could do nothing for me.

I’ve got to be honest with you.  I was a bit shocked.  I reminded the embassy official that I had been assured that I would be eligible for a visa – three times! – but I was unable to get any additional information and I was out of luck.  I asked the embassy official for his name so that I might lodge a complaint, but he was not willing to provide this information.  That was the end of the road for my hopes of seeing Algiers.

Since there was no one else with whom to speak, I thought that I would write to you directly.  I understand that you have the right to deny admission to anyone who wishes to visit your country.  In fact, I’m sure that many Algerians have horror stories about their experiences trying to get a visa to visit the United States.

Still, I would like to at least share a few thoughts on my experience now that my frustration has abated.  A nation such as Algeria can only benefit when a foreigner seeks to understand its culture.  This is especially true of a nation that used to have a much more significant tourism industry but due to sad circumstances has found itself rather isolated.  The money that the tourist spends during his or her travels doesn’t hurt either.  Your visa process is excessively complicated and your staff lacked the training to provide accurate information regarding visa requirements.  I respect your desire to require visas for visitors from certain countries, but I cannot respect the disorganization that I experienced during the process.

For what it’s worth, I’d like to tell you a bit about the experience that your neighbor Morocco has had with tourism.  From what I read in a guidebook, the King of Morocco conducted a study and realized that the average foreign visitor spends more than US$1, 200 during a visit to his country.  Given the favorable impact of such spending, Morocco has tried to make itself as tourist friendly as possible.

Morocco’s visitor-friendly policies certainly attracted me.  The day after I left your embassy in Madrid, I booked a flight to Marrakesh.  It turns out that I won’t require a visa, so I’m already feeling like I’m going to feel quite at home there.


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