Psammotourism: Desert sand as a specific resource and touristic experience (Merzouga, southeast Morocco)
This article describes the conditions for the emergence of a new local territorial resource that is based on the exploitation of the presence of sand dunes and examines its construction. Merzouga, located in the pre-Saharan desert of southeast Morocco, has become a global hotspot for desert tourism. The touristic immersion in the sand here is twofold. There is the classic excursions type of tourism, aimed at an international clientele, and the wellness tourism, aimed at Moroccan therapy enthusiasts, which consists of the practice of sand baths. The sand resource is linked up with other cultural and identity-related resources, which anchor it locally and make it a specific territorial resource that is locally controlled and recognised externally. However, the massification of psammotourism, through most notably the creation of a ‘desertfront’ (akin to a holiday resort’s seafront), threatens to banalise the resources that have made this tourist destination so unique and so successful.
Introduction: Sand, a specific, sought-after territorial resource
Sand gives us much food for thought. Some publications have highlighted its importance in the technical, ecological, social, symbolic and aesthetic lives of different human groups (Boulay and Gélard, 2013; Roccella and Varichon, 2006), while others have looked more specifically at sand-dependent tourist resort practices through the investment made in beaches by contemporary urban societies (particularly Corbin, 1988; Lageiste, 2008). More recently, studies have shown the complexity of the scientific, socioeconomic and environmental challenges that sand presents as a natural resource (Welland, 2009). In addition, journalistic investigations (Delestrac, 2013 and 2015; Beiser, 2015) and the action of various associations and NGOs (for example, the Peuple des dunes en Trégor collective and the Awaaz and Santa Aguila foundations) has raised the public’s awareness of the serious and underestimated consequences of extracting and transporting sand (ecological pollution and degradation, marine and fluvial erosion, soil salinisation, loss of biodiversity, etc.). Sand is an indispensable raw material, and it is being increasingly exploited, very often informally and/or illegally, across the globe (UNEP, 2015). Increased demand and the proliferation in uses mean that sand has become if not rare then at least sought-after and sometimes conflictual (fig.1). Localised endeavours to protect coasts from marine erosion, create artificial islands and polders and attract international tourists by creating or maintaining white sandy beaches mean that the supply of sand to coastal tourist resorts and urbanized coastal areas worldwide has now become generalised.
However, not all sand is suitable for all the uses that make it so indispensable today. It may be a globalised resource, but it is far from being generic. For example, it can sometimes undergo a process of specification and anchorage in an area, particularly where specific, localised deposits have been mobilised in different ways by local expertise.
Based on the analysis of an illuminating case of sand that has been constructed as a territorial resource (Gumuchian and Pecqueur, 2007; Landel, Gagnol and Oiry-Varacca, 2014), the present article proposes to discuss this hypothesis of the specification and anchorage of sand as a resource. More specifically, the hypothesis will be considered from the point of view of a particular, localised type of sand, namely sand dunes, or ergs, in the tourist spots of the Moroccan desert, which attract mass numbers of national and international visitors every year. Sand is a vital economic resource in these regions with a high touristic and therapeutic added value. It also appears to be the main driving force behind the development of these isolated, marginalised areas in the Moroccan Pre-Saharan borders. This article seeks to prove this is the case through an analysis of the tourism development trajectory of the small town of Merzouga (using M’Hamid El Ghizlane as a point of comparison). Merzouga relies on a dual psammotourism. Psammotourism refers to sand-based tourist activities that view sand as a resource that is specific to a particular territory. In the case we will focus on here, psammotourism involves, on the one hand, the practice of sand baths, a form of health tourism generated mainly by Moroccan therapy enthusiasts, and, on the other, the more classic form of desert tourism that is based on organised excursions in the sand dunes, which is targeted at a mainly international, particularly European clientele. The experiential and sensory dimensions of psammotourism are fundamental to it. Tourists literally immerse themselves in a very specific environment, namely the desert sand, either through voluntary burial in the sand or through the involuntary, transient imprints of their journey on the sand during their excursions in the dunes (whether from their own or their camels’ footprints or from the tracks left behind by their vehicle).
Through our analysis of Merzouga’s developmental trajectory, we will show how a touristic resource that is based on the exploitation of sand dunes by local actors is gradually constructed. Sand as a resource has been the subject of a specification that has made Merzouga’s reputation both nationally and internationally. Our hypothesis is that this territorial anchorage has been generated as a result, on the one hand, of a locally organised control of access to the resource and, on the other, of an expansion both in Merzouga’s client base and in additional specific complementary resources, particularly those that are cultural and identity-based. However, Merzouga’s success and massification risk banalising both the resource and the tourist experience and may produce a situation in which it loses impetus or even collapses altogether.
The emergence of sand as a tourist resource
The collapse of nomadism
According to the oral memory of its inhabitants, Merzouga was only founded as a sedentary settlement and gravitational centre for the Aït Khebbach Berber tribe (part of the Aït Atta confederation) during the period of French colonisation, or from the 1930s onwards. This desert region had long resisted the central authority of the Makhzen and the colonial power. Strongly marked by nomadism, pastoralism and the trading caravan activities, this region suffered its first blow from the consequences of colonisation, which saw the tribes’ movements restricted and the disappearance of the protection that had been set up for oasis communities (extending from Rteb and Tafilalt in Morocco to Gourara and Touat in what is now Algeria, that is, an area almost 1,000 km long). The subsequent development of agriculture and mining (particularly the lead mines at Mfis) and the demarcation of the borders following first Moroccan and then Algerian independence forced nomadism into a dynamic of involution (Lefébure, 1986), that is, a slow process of retraction. It subsequently suffered a second blow in the 1970s and 1980s.
After the Sand War events of 1963, there was a breakdown in relations between Morocco and Algeria in 1975 following the annexation of the Western Sahara (the breakdown was reiterated in 1994 with the official closure of the border). Until the 1970s, the Aït Khebbach populations had always lived off their mobility capital, not only through trading activities in the desert, mountains and oases but also by playing on the terms of trade and the complementarity of resources within a trade network that had become both cross-border (the borders resulting from two countries’ independence) and mechanised (by lorry). The collapse of pastoralism following an increased number of severe droughts (especially those in 1974 and at the beginning of the 1980s) and the construction of the Hassan Addakhil dam to the north of Errachidia in 1971 (plus a whole host of other secondary hydraulic works) led to a sharp decline not only in pastoral practices but also in risky flood-recession cereal farming (maâder), mainly because of the disappearance of the wadi floodplains.
Adapting to the irreversible decline in their main livelihood and the compartmentalisation of their lived space, the Aït Khebbach populations have learnt to diversify their way of life in both residential and economic terms. Sedentarisation has increased and now appears to be widespread, even though some families still live partly from livestock farming. On the rare occasions when the rains come, camps are temporarily set up to take advantage of the pastureland. Irrigated agriculture has been developed, with khettara (drains, mainly subterranean, distributing water from a source through gravity) and, more recently, motorised pumps leading to the creation of palm groves and the production of food crops, including those for export. However, the amount of silt in the pipes, the drop in the water levels and the salinization of the phreatic tables has been alarming and has led to the disappearance of palm groves further downstream. The concept of the wage-earner has also developed among the populations, with the army being the principal employer since 1975. As a result, rural exodus has been particularly high, leading to a demographic decline despite strong natural population growth (Aït Hamzi and El Faskaoui, 2010). However, the past two decades in particular have seen the emergence of a new resource to replace those that have collapsed, namely tourism.
The tourism of sand dune excursions
Tourism began in Morocco during the colonial period, but it was not until the 1970s that the first backpackers appeared in southeast Morocco, a destination that was considered to be original and marginal. However, although a municipal hostel was set up in Merzouga in 1975, there has been a requirement since that date for tourists to be led by guides from recognised agencies (from Marrakech, Rabat, etc.) and to stay overnight in Erfoud, the main town in Tafilalt. International tourism in the Merzouga region did not really begin to develop until the end of the 1980s, as evidenced by the creation of the first touristic infrastructures. It began with a handful of locals offering mint tea under a tent to tourists who had come to climb the dunes at sunrise and sunset. Encouraged by the first tour operators who were looking for partners living in the location, some former nomadic families then founded the first local tourist agencies, offering méharées (camel treks) for a day, a few days or even a few weeks. Tourism activity gradually took shape and experienced strong growth at the beginning of the 2000s (see map, fig. 2) following the installation of telephone lines (1995), electricity (1998) and drinking water conveyance (2003) as well as the tarmacking of the road from Rissani (begun in 2002 and finished in 2005) and the Merzouga’s connection to a mobile phone network (2000) and the Internet (2005). The tents fitted out as Moroccan tearooms were replaced by the first adobe family hostels. Today, these are real hotels (with a few dozen beds maximum), which have been gradually adapted to meet with the standards of international tourism (hot showers, international cuisine, wifi, accommodation for motorhome travellers, etc.). Hence, the informal (peddling and rogue ‘guides’) and formal (boutiques, bazaars, tourist agencies and transport providers) tourism economy that is associated with activities specific to the desert, particularly the guided excursions in the dunes for Western tourists (whether on foot and/or on camels or in motorised vehicles, such as motorbikes, quads and four-by-fours), has taken shape. Despite these upgrades and a diversification of the activities offered, the length of tourists’ stays in Merzouga remains short. The méharées (long-haul itinerant tourist caravans) are now a marginal activity compared with the more rushed standard excursions type of tourism (half a day or a night in a bivouac). Merzouga (and M’Hamid to a lesser extent) is an obligatory stop-off point during a trip to Morocco that includes a detour to the desert in both the individual tours and those organised by international tour operators. These half-day express tours allow tourists to climb the dunes at sunrise or sunset, meet the ‘nomads’ and return to their hotel in Erfoud. Nevertheless, the majority of tourists do not tend to pass up a night in a bivouac, the ersatz nomadic camps and tents. From the 2000s onwards in particular, bivouacs, which were mobile at first but are now permanent structures (with concrete foundations), have been set up in the heart of the dune zones (fig. 3), particularly in the Erg Chebbi (fig. 4), by local actors (often the hostel or local agency owners). There are now about sixty of them.
Running in parallel and in concomitance with this touristic exploitation of the dunes has been the gradual development of another type of sand resource, targeted at a quite different, mainly national, clientele, namely sand baths.
Health tourism in the dunes
Acting as a kind of natural sauna, sand baths undertaken for the purposes of therapy or wellbeing are not specific to southeast Morocco nor even to North Africa. The practice takes place discreetly in different places all over the world, most notably in desert regions (in the Maghreb, Central Asia and China) but also in volcanic and seaside locations (particularly in Japan). They were prevalent in Europe until the beginning of the 20th century in the Mediterranean and Atlantic seaside resorts (including the Black Sea and the Baltic). Although they are no longer undertaken in the open-air, they still exist in some thalassotherapy centres and spas (either on tables or in bathtubs with artificially heated sand). In Morocco, Merzouga is the sand bath hotspot. It is the most well-known and well-frequented site in the country owing to the quality of the sand at Erg Chebbi, which is lined with recently built villages and hotel infrastructures (see fig. 2).
The immersion of the body in the sand is nothing new in southeast Morocco. Gélard (2014) correctly highlighted its ancestral origins as being in the Berber medical and cultural traditions. However, what we see in Merzouga today – in this form and on this scale – is relatively recent. In the 1980s, the pioneer was thought to have been a Belgian doctor who was said to have travelled to Merzouga to treat his rheumatism and to have demonstrated the benefits of this treatment to the local populations who, intrigued, had come to question him. Another local account, however, claims that it was a Moroccan specialist doctor from Casablanca who had recommended it to one of his compatriots who had emigrated to Europe. Even though these two versions of the origins of sand baths in Merzouga differ, they nevertheless both stress their exteriority. It was the perspective of an outsider, armed with medical legitimacy, who raised awareness among local actors of the therapeutic potential of this practice for a non-native clientele and therefore of its importance for the local economy and all the possible benefits that anchoring it to the local area might bring. Transmission to the local actors was almost instantaneous because the practice was based on readjusted ancient uses.
Merzouga’s reputation rests on the intrinsic qualities that have been attributed to its sand, which other dune sites either do not have or have to a lesser degree and which are therefore sought-after outside of the region. These qualities are linked most notably to its granulometry (absence of dust that can block the skin pores), the smoothness and smoothing effects of the grains (which flow easily), its very low organic matter content and mineralogical composition (absence of calcerous fragments), its high calorific value linked to a climate that is hot and dry and marked by many hours of sunshine and finally the pinkish ochre colour of the dunes. Because of these specific qualities, the prophylactic and curative virtues of the sand are thought to be all the more pronounced. Immersion in this extremely hot, dry environment (over 70%, but the air circulating between the grains prevents any burns) triggers a strong response in the body, most notably in the form of intense sweating, which causes the body to dry out. This is effective against certain inflammatory illnesses, traumatic and articular affections (particularly rheumatism), neuralgia, osteoarthritis and lumbago, among others. Owing to a Hippocratic conception of the relationship between the body and its environment, these affections are often considered in Morocco to be the result of a life spent in a cold, humid climate, which leads to an excessive absorption of humidity by the body. The sand baths thus restore the body’s balance. They are mainly used by a national Arabic-speaking clientele from the big cities on Morocco’s Atlantic coast (Casablanca, Rabat, Tangiers, etc.) or by Moroccan expatriates living in Europe.
Because of the intrinsic and functional qualities of its sand, Merzouga has become established as the sand bath hotspot of Morocco ahead of M’Hamid, Zagora and Figuig. In addition, it benefits from the close proximity of the Moroccan urban centres and the port of Tangiers, and its aesthetic attributes and the height of the dunes (said to be 160 metres) also enhance its appeal. Psammotherapy has therefore developed in parallel and in concomitance with the more traditional excursions type of tourism, which is an exceptional source of recreation and exoticism in these dunes. Two forms of psammotourism thus coexist in Merzouga without ever really coming into contact with one another. They both target different publics around the same sand resource, with the sand dune excursions type of tourism aimed at international travellers and the health tourism aimed at Moroccan nationals (including those who have emigrated to Europe). The summer, which is the peak season for sand baths, corresponds to a slack period in terms of international visitors. Sand is thus a dual resource that provides for the majority of the local populations all year long by urbanising a ‘desertfront’ (akin to a holiday resort’s seafront) along the western side of the Erg Chebbi (see map, fig. 2).
Sand: An enduring territorial resource in the desert?
The territorial anchoring of the resource
The organisation of sand baths remains essentially informal and family-based. With the help and supervision of a Mergouza inhabitant (fig. 5), anyone can come and bury themselves in the sand. Since the dunes of Erg Chebbi are part of the tribal lands that emerged from a system of collective law, there are no privatised sites devolved solely to this use. Nevertheless, private initiatives have seen the installation of temporary bivouacs (fig. 6) to welcome therapy clients at the most frequently visited sites (tourists will find a tent where they can rest and drink some tea as well as have a shower). Some hostels organise sand baths for clients who request them, but the majority do not accept therapy clients. According to the hostel owners, allowing too many of this clientele into their rooms would lower the standing of the establishments and thus reduce the number of Western tourists wanting to come and stay. Moreover, the sand that they would offload would block up the pipes.
Because they come in family groups or with friends (generally relatively elderly) and because they often only have modest financial means, most therapy clients lodge with a local inhabitant, who they will have been introduced to by a rogue ‘guide’. However, this poses some moral difficulties regarding cohabitation for the local populations, who are reluctant to welcome ‘strangers’ into their own domestic space. Hence, a distance is maintained between the household and the therapy clients, who are given accommodation in a separate part of the house that has been specifically extended for the purpose (for further details on this point, see Gélard, op. cit.). Moreover, because the sand bath sites are situated on the first dunes, which are in contact with the last houses, they participate in the urbanisation of the length of Erg Chebbi and the densification of the two villages situated there, Merzouga and Hassilabiad. These two villages now have a tendency to agglomerate through, on the one hand, the intensive construction of hostels and houses and, on the other, the absorption of once-separate neighbouring ‘districts’ or ‘hamlets’. However, despite the proliferation of new builds, it is still difficult to find accommodation at the height of the season (in July and particularly in August). When all the rooms and terraces are full, some therapy clients will find a spot near a well in the palm groves and camp out there, while some even set up camp in the streets, particularly in Merzouga’s main square, where most of the commercial activity is concentrated.
Sand bath clients have to be assisted by an accompanying person from the village. This is often someone from their host family or, if not, someone who works at the site (these assistants can be found in the private purpose-built bivouacs). Once they have been paid, the assistant digs the pits in the sand in the morning to give them time to warm up. During the hottest part of the day (between 11 am and 5 pm), the therapy clients set off in small groups for their ‘tombs’. The men undress down to a pair of shorts and lie down. Using a shovel, the guide covers them with sand up to their chests or necks and makes sure their heads are shaded (with a parasol or a rug suspended between two palm tree branches). The burial generally only lasts a few minutes (generally between 5 and 10 minutes — although it can occasionally be up to 30 minutes — depending on the heat, the client’s level of sand baths experience and their health). The guide assists them during immersion (to rehydrate regularly) and then helps them up when they are finished (because hypotension, caused by vasodilation, can lead to dizziness), wrapping them immediately in a large blanket to keep them warm (cheap blankets also used as packsaddles on the camels). The clients are then accompanied back to the tent or their accommodation, where they lie down and rest, sipping hot tea infused with medicinal plants. After this, they are allowed to have something to eat and drink (tepid water) before finally being able having a hot shower. This process takes place once or twice a day for the clients and is repeated over a few days (the length of stay varies from two/three days to a week but rarely more than ten days).
A whole host of seasonal businesses have sprung up around the sand baths. Responding to the needs of therapy clients in terms of their stay in Merzouga as well as their treatment, other complementary resources have been exploited. Dozens of itinerant traders from the Tafilalt region set up in Merzouga during the season as herbalists, butchers (selling camel meat in particular), masseurs, healers, and vendors selling blankets, hats and turbans, fruit and vegetables, dates, orange juice, crêpes and fritters, and so on. A few semi-nomadic livestock farmers bivouac nearby with their dairy camels (fig. 7). Camel’s milk, which is relatively expensive to produce, is renowned for its health benefits and is an integral part of the treatment (fig. 8). Furthermore, infusions of aromatic and medicinal plants, which are presented as typically Saharan, are added to the tea, and camel’s brains or fat from their humps are used in massages. Sand baths are thus an essential component of a stay in a desert environment, which is considered to be authentic and invigorating, combining the purity of the sand, the healthy dry climate and the consumption of specific types of food. There is a mystical dimension too associated with this treatment, conceived of as a purification of the mind as well as the body. A visit to Tafilalt’s mosques and the saints’ mausoleums along with a trip to the thermal waters is also therefore sometimes part of the treatment itinerary, which aims to arrive at either a cure or else at a revitalisation and reinvigoration for the rest of the year.
Sand baths therefore represent, for the urban Moroccan therapy fan, a healing or wellbeing remedy through immersion in the sand. More broadly, this restorative experience in a healthy, authentic environment is seen as a return to the Bedouin origins of their ancestors. In that sense, this imaginary desert world links up with the Western tourists’ search for exoticism, who come to discover the authentic nomadic lifestyle and find escapism through an excursion into the dunes and a night in a bivouac (Cauvin-Verner, 2008). In response to the expectations of the tourists and spa enthusiasts, nomadic heritage is displayed through both tangible and intangible markers (the itinerant journey, the camels, the tents and bivouacs, the gandurah and tagelmust clothing, the songs and dances, the cuisine, such as dates, the bread cooked in the sand, the aromatic and medicinal herbs, and so on). In fact, there is currently a heritagisation of these markers through their mobilisation for identity, political and commercial purposes, as evidenced, for example, by the cultural festivals that promote the nomadic and Saharan cultures. This process of identity display and of showcasing local specificities (crafts, local produce) is supported by the local and central authorities as well as by associated foreign partners. Merzouga’s psammotourism thus ensures some form of continuity in the transmission of practices, expertise and inherited and rehabilitated identities, but it is not exempt from folklorisation.
A telling moment in this hijacking by touristic massification is the international tourists’ much-anticipated meeting with the ‘nomads’ in Mergouza. The excursions in the dunes (which last between 30 minutes and 2/3 days) allow the tourists to bivouac under a (camel-hair) tent set up in an oasis between the dunes (fig. 3 and 4). However, it is difficult nowadays for tourists to imagine living an experience of nomadic life when they can see the line of tourist bivouacs between the eucalyptus trees (planted to create an oasis), which are protected from the camels’ teeth by barbed wire (fig. 4). Moreover, the majority of guides and camel drivers present themselves as nomads (or villagers recently forced to settle because of the droughts). This can lead, for example, to surrealist scenes where, not wanting to spoil the myth, the guides hide when using their mobile phones in the dunes. In addition, just like the trip to see the Gnawa musicians of Khemliya (a hamlet to the south of Merzouga), a visit to the so-called nomadic camps of Kemkemiya (to the east of Erg Chebbi) is an integral part of every tour around the Erg organised by the hostels (day trip in a four-by-four). The people in these camps, who have also become ‘professional nomads’ (translated from the French), to borrow Cauvin-Verner’s (2010) expression, welcome the passing tourists into their tents as they stop to drink tea and take advantage of the organised hospitality.
Family management and local control of the resource
Focusing too much on the negative effects of tourism relating to the breakdown of local societies, most of the studies on southern Morocco (Bentaleb, 2013, Borghi et al., 2011, Bouaouinate, 2008, Dekkari 2013, Minvielle et al., 2007) have neglected the social structures and relationships of power that have to be engaged in the renewal and control of the resource. As we have seen, in Merzouga, the innovations in terms of tourism development should be seen in an informal and familial context. There is an almost total absence of hotel chains, with the majority of establishments and tourist agencies being locally owned. This familial aspect is promoted because it serves as a gauge of the authenticity sought by Western clientele. The first heads of family to have invested in tourism have gradually managed to improve the accommodation facilities in Merzouga, which have grown from simple tents to hotels with restaurants and swimming pools. These are now seen as a symbol of material success. This has been accomplished through a diversification of tourist attractions (for example, by offering vehicle and camel hire and setting up bivouacs in the dunes). Being an owner also, finally, means being able to give your younger brothers, sons and cousins jobs in line with their skills and requirements, for example as a housekeeper, activities organiser, cook, chauffeur, guide, camel driver or sand bath assistant.
Even though, as a group, wealthy families have built up enough capital to guarantee a wide variety of tourist attractions, individual hostel owners often have to call on other owners to allow their clients to access facilities they do not have, such as camel hire or access to a bivouac. Forms of alliance and solidarity based on kinship thus ensure the whole range of tourist attractions are covered. Family tensions can nevertheless appear when a younger brother or a son wants to gain his independence and be his own boss, especially when he turns to external and foreign networks for help. Indeed, since the 1990s, many local actors, in order to be able to invest in tourism, have looked to set up or develop their touristic structure by joining forces with a foreign partner (generally French or Spanish), who is often responsible for the initial capital. In return, this allows the foreign partners to invest (by means of a long lease with the land title being set up under the name of a local inhabitant), since they do not have access to real estate on land that is governed by collective law. In 2007, 20% of the hostels around Erg Chebbi entered into this type of joint investment (Bouaouinate, 2008). These partnerships have quite frequently resulted in marriage between a young man from Merzouga and a European woman (on this issue, see Cauvin-Verner, 2007). More recently, an equivalent partnership also allows couples to invest in property, which they use as a second home as well as a tourist let.
Hence, the dynamics of tourism investments and innovations play out in changing contexts of intrafamilial and interfamilial solidarity and rivalry. In a village and tribal environment, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, an innovation does not stay isolated for very long. The tourism stakeholders fall into line very quickly by adopting it, which leads to ever-increasing numbers of facilities and levels of comfort. Some local actors find this lamentable because they think Merzouga is just blindly forging ahead towards a banalisation of the tourist activities on offer. The rivalry between families can, for example, lead to duplicate festivals, which operate on a competition rather than a complementary basis. In M’Hamid, the success of the Festival International des Nomads has given rise to the creation of the Festival Taragalte, which mainly targets Western clientele. Finally, rivalries for the control of access to certain favoured sites has led to increased pressure on real estate in the tribal collective lands. The private appropriation of bivouac sites (at Erg Chebbi at the foot of the largest dunes) and even of entire palm groves, such as at Oum Lalaag near M’Hamid, now attracts rivalries, although these do not result in open conflicts because the local collective regulatory frameworks still seem to be in force. However, a victim of its own success, tourism in the Merzouga dunes could enter a downward spiral as the conditions for reproducing the resource are increasingly compromised.
The creation of a ‘desertfront’: Towards a banalisation of the resource?
Merzouga has thus undergone spectacular development. The commune of Taouz has grown from 1,400 inhabitants in 1998 to around 5,000 in 2006 and to more than 7,000 today, not to mention its floating seasonal population. There were seven hostels in 1987, 35 in 1997, 71 in 2007 (Bouaouinate, 2008: 101) and 98 in 2014 (according to an inventory compiled by a research unit from data collected on site and from hotel reservation websites; 84 according to the director of the Drâa-Tafilalt Centre Régional d’Investissement [regional investment centre]). According to Popp in 2001 (cited in Bouaouinate, 2008: 98), although the statistics may only be approximate, Erg Chebbi is without doubt the most frequently visited dune complex in the Sahara. The sprawl of new constructions and the extension and densification of the builds have turned the western fringe of Erg Chebbi into a ‘desertfront’. Could this currently unplanned linear urbanisation at the foot of the dunes be a ‘psammic’ or ‘sandy shore’ resort in the medium term, in other words a touristic bathing resort in the desert?
The Moroccan state, which has for a long time kept out of matters relating to tourist activities (except for issuing authorisation for private projects), has finally shown an interest and intervened to control development in Merzouga. With the official objective in the Draa-Tafilalt region being to increase the number of tourist visits from 880,000 in 2010 to 1.8 million, the Ministry of Tourism’s rural tourism development strategy states that rural tourism has been ‘insufficiently exploited, even though it has been excessively exploited in some areas, such as around Erg Chebbi’ (translated from the French) (cited in Bouaouinate, 2008: 97). Priority has, for now, been given over to combatting aspects that are considered to be anarchic, with a primary focus on the rogue ‘guides’. In the past, before the road was tarmacked, these rogue ‘guides’ would accompany tourists from Rissani (where the direction of Merzouga on the signposts is still blacked out, fig. 9). However, the tarmacking of the road and the introduction of traffic signs and GPS made them redundant. They then began to wait at the entrance to Merzouga, where the tourists would find themselves at a bit of a loss trying to find their hotel (which they had often booked on the Internet). Some of the rogue ‘guides’ would not hesitate to change the direction of a competing hostel owner’s sign or even to take it down altogether (fig. 10). In order to resolve these disagreements as well as the visual pollution from the proliferation of signs, the state has recently installed standardised signage, showing the names of the accommodation, at certain points on the route (fig. 11). As a result, the rogue ‘guides’ have deserted the entrance to the village, with some stationing themselves in the main square, which has recently been equipped with street furniture, and others taking up position at the tricky points on the desert trails, where they wait for hours for a vehicle to get stuck in the sand and then offer their assistance.
A more integrated plan seems to be taking shape to resolve the increasing conflicts of use at Erg Chebbi. It is difficult to reconcile the use of quads with camels (who get frightened) or the tourists who come to do a yoga course, watch the stars or experience life with the nomads with the organisation of rallies (it is an obligatory stage in all Moroccan rallies). The tourism stakeholders, through a professional association set up in 2004 at the instigation of the Ministry of the Interior, has already decided to ban the construction of hotels on the eastern side of the Erg (which is still the case) and to reserve a large part of the Erg for sand baths and camel excursions to the bivouacs, confining motorised vehicles to the south of the Erg (which has never been respected). This approach has been taken up by a Merzouga sustainable development pilot project, which resulted from an agreement between the Ministry of Tourism, the UNDP and the POT (Tafilalt Oasis sustainable territorial development programme) agency. Stricter zoning appears to be the priority response given, based on the principle of sustainable tourism, albeit it seems to be difficult to implement.
Finally, regardless of the fact that sand baths have been practised openly and on a large-scale, the state as well as the local and medical authorities (unlike those in other countries) seem to have been uninterested in them, at least until recently. Due to their growing popularity, that is now changing. The sand baths have received a mention in the Moroccan and even international media (2M, AFP, Al Jazeera, etc.). Official brochures are starting to highlight the merits of sand in support of the rise of health tourism in these regions. Based on the European model of thalassotherapy, some vague notions to medicalise and ‘modernise’ the practice have been emerging at local level (with a massage salon, a healthy menu, a hammam, a jacuzzi, etc.), although, for the moment, these have not come to fruition due to a lack of investment, foreign partners and official support.
Finally, it would seem that, in the medium term, there could be a convergence of the two forms of psammotourism because the two types of clientele are becoming increasingly less compartmentalised. While more Moroccans are now coming on holiday to Merzouga in their family or friendship groups to both try out the sand bath experience and see the dunes in excursions to the bivouacs, some Europeans are also trying out the sand baths, as illustrated by the diversification of the discourse on the benefits of sand. The fact that sand eliminates toxins and stoutness, providing a natural ‘detox’ treatment, has already been added to the discourse. Now something of a growing trend, the sand baths in Merzouga have risen to number 4 in the world rankings as the best destination for wellness tourism, according to the August/September 2016 edition of the American magazine National Geographic Traveler. Hence, we might well wonder whether the sand baths are not being banalised at all as they align themselves with the international standards of health and wellness tourism, namely professionalisation, medicalisation, marketing and recreation.
The trajectory of territorial development in this outlying amazigh (Berber-speaking) region is revealing in terms of the construction of resources resulting from successive collapses. This sequence of destruction is only creative inasmuch as it necessitates the emergence and development of substitute resources to survive. Our analysis has shown that the resource construction/destruction alternation can be interpreted as a complex game of snakes and ladders, played out between the construction and local control of resources, on the one hand, and the external investments and collapses, often at a higher level (regional or global), on the other. In the present case of sand baths, the national touristic dimension should be noted insofar as the clientele is Moroccan (or Moroccan expatriates in Europe). The construction of sand as a resource can be seen as being part of a range of different process that can be characterised as follows: discovery of the resource, mobilisation of a usually external gaze, justification of the resource’s connection with the location, development of the resource and, finally, linking up of the resource with other resources. Determining how this resource becomes anchored to the territory and more especially how it is controlled by local actors, continues to be the key issue.
This anchoring is based, in the first place, on the specific features of the location insofar as they are linked to the intrinsic qualities of the sand (texture, composition, aesthetic qualities). These give rise to functional qualities and, in particular, to therapeutic uses that generate new practices and activities. Controlled by the local populations, they are then linked to other resources (Saharan nomadic identity, desert vegetation, camel’s milk, etc.) in order to integrate them into notions of wellbeing and individual regeneration. As a touristic resource, the desert, or more precisely the dune sands, is renewed in line with the evolution of the touristic practices that take it as a medium and exploit its specific qualities. There is no question that it is a renewable touristic resource, but it is important to add that it is not necessarily a sustainable one, because it is determined by the maintenance of the ecological conditions of resource reproduction, particularly in a context where the tourist facilities are being standardised and upgraded. This therefore raises the increasingly acute issues not only of biodiversity conservation, increased water consumption and waste management but also, more broadly, of landscape protection and the support of oasis agropastoralism in the face of desertification and urbanisation.
In a context of the evolution and diversification of tourism practices, real estate remains one of the principal means of controlling the territory’s resources. It limits intrusions from external actors, but it does not set up the conditions for coordination among existing actors, who remain integrated in systems of rivalry and conflicts of use (particularly in the excursions type of tourism), which are toned down by the seasonality of practices and family and tribal solidarities. Within extended families, the distribution of activities associated with psammotourism is one of the principal ways of coordinating and controlling activity. This situation is only challenged by the attraction and interference of external capital, which often follows the setting up and investment in tourism as a result of a marriage. These financial and emotional exchanges, which bring with them innovation and a destabilisation of the social and moral norms (Cauvin-Verner, 2007), are one of the specific features of tourism development in the Moroccan desert.
Together with the risk of banalisation and the ecological issues linked to massification, the main threat to the vitality of the resource lies in its development. Given the ‘desertfront’ linear urbanisation that has evolved, the concept of ‘desert resort’ is not far off. If this happens, the state’s assertion of new regulations and standards combined with the arrival of external capital is one of the main threats to the current local control of the resource. The robustness of the links within and between extended families and their ability to negotiate in a coordinated way with external pressures is yet to be analysed. The same is true for the potential collapse of the touristic resource. The stakeholders in Merzouga are under no illusions about the current success of psammotourism. It remains fragile because it is conditioned by external elements over which they have no control, such as the potential effects of an Islamist attack, a more open conflict with Algeria or increased cross-border smuggling and its repression. As such, even though nomadism in its collective and purely pastoral form is now residual (Rachik, 2000), there is an enduring nomadic heritage in Mergouza, which is based on mobility capital and the capital inherent in the flexibility of a local society. In a restrictive sandy desert environment, this capital ensures the continuity of the population’s living conditions through the diversification of resources and the network of relations that are maintained with other spaces and at other levels.
Aït Hamza M. et El Faskaoui B., 2010, « Les oasis du Drâa au Maroc. Rupture des équilibres environnementaux et stratégies migratoires », Hommes et migrations, n° 1284, mis en ligne le 29 mai 2013, consulté le 15 septembre 2015. [http://hommesmigrations.revues.org/1241]
Beiser V., 2015, « The Deadly Global War for Sand », Wired, 26/03/2015, [http://www.wired.com/2015/03/illegal-sand-mining/]
Bentaleb A., 2013, « Impacts du tourisme présaharien sur les ressources patrimoniales dans la vallée du Drâa moyen (Maroc). Cas de la Palmeraie de M’Hamid », in M. Duval, V. Peyrache-Gadeau et M. Oudada (coord.), Ressources patrimoniales et alternatives touristiques : entre Oasis et Montagne, collection EDYTEM, n° 14, pp. 25-34.
Borghi R., Minoia P., Camuffo M. et El Amraoui F., 2011, « Le Tourisme en milieu fragile : entre développement humain et dégradation environnementale », in Boujrouf S. et Tebbaa O. (coord.), Tourisme et pauvreté,Paris, AUF-Éd. des archives contemporaines, pp. 45-56.
Bouaouinate A., 2008, Les acteurs locaux du tourisme de désert au Maroc : cas de l’erg Chebbi et de Zagora – M’Hamid, thèse de l’université de Bayreuth, 598 p.[https://epub.uni-bayreuth.de/534/1/Asmae.pdf]
Bouaouinate A., 2009, « Erg Chebbi (Maroc) : une dynamique touristique interrompue par une inondation au désert », Annales de géographie, vol. 3, n° 667, pp. 332-343.
Boulay S. et Gélard M.-L. (dir.), 2013, « vivre la sable ! Corps, matière et sociétés », Techniques & culture, n° 61/2.[https://tc.revues.org/6819]
Cauvin-Verner C., 2007, Au désert. Une anthropologie du tourisme dans le Sud marocain. Paris, L’Harmattan.
Cauvin-Verner C., 2008, « Les Hommes bleus du Sahara, ou l’autochtonie globalisée », Civilisations, n° 57, mis en ligne le 29 décembre 2011, consulté le 10 juillet 2015. [http://civilisations.revues.org/1109]
Corbin A., 2010 , Le territoire du vide : l’Occident et le désir du rivage, Paris, Flammarion, 409 p.
Dekkari A., 2013, « Le tourisme des dunes de l’erg Chebbi (Maroc). Les germes d’autodestruction d’un secteur en pleine expansion », M. Duval, V. Peyrache-Gadeau et M. Oudada (coord.), Ressources patrimoniales et alternatives touristiques : entre Oasis et Montagne, collection EDYTEM, n° 14, pp. 35-44.
Delestrac D., 2013, Le sable, enquête sur une disparition, France/Canada, prod. Arte, [http://future.arte.tv/fr/sujet/nos-plages-court-de-sable]
Delestrac D., 2015, « Le sable : enquête sur une disparition », in Y.-M. Abraham et D. Murray (dir.) Creuser jusqu’où ? Extractivisme et limites à la croissance, Ed. Ecosociété, pp. 174-182.
Gélard M.-L., 2003, Le pilier de la tente. Rituels et représentations de l’honneur chez les Aït Khebbach (Tafilalt), Paris, MSH-Ibis Press, 250 p.
Gélard M.-L., 2014, « Les « bains de sable » dans le Tafilalt. Pratiques et représentations de l’immersion des corps en contexte saharien », in Techniques & Culture, n° 61, pp. 100-121.
Gumuchian H. et Pecqueur B., 2007, La ressource territoriale, Paris, Economica, 252 p.
Lageiste J., 2008, « La plage, un objet géographique de désir », Géographie et cultures, 67, mis en ligne le 19 mai 2013, consulté le 15 février 2016 ; [http://gc.revues.org/1002].
Landel P.-A., Gagnol L. et Oiry-Varacca M., 2014, « Ressources territoriales et destinations touristiques : des couples en devenir ? », Journal of Alpine Research | Revue de géographie alpine, 102-1, mis en ligne le 05 juin 2014, consulté le 26 janvier 2016. [http://rga.revues.org/2326]
Lefébure C., 1986, « Ayt Khebbach, impasse sud-est. L’involution d’une tribu marocaine exclue du Sahara », in Revue de l’Occident musulman et de la Méditerranée, n°41-42, P.-R. Baduel (dir.), Désert et montagne au Maghreb, pp. 136-157.
Métral F., 2010, « Quelle patrimonialisation pour l’héritage bédouin ? Réflexions sur le cas syrien », in David J.-C. et Müller-Celka S., Patrimoines culturels en Méditerranée orientale : recherche scientifique et enjeux identitaires, Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée, 14 p
Minvielle J.-P., Smida M. et Majdoub W. (coord.), 2007, Tourisme saharien et développement durable. Enjeux et approches comparatives, Actes du colloque de Tozeur, univ. de Sousse, IRD, 649 p.
PNUE, 2014, « Sand. Rarer than one thinks », Note thématique, 10 p. [http://www.unep.org/pdf/UNEP_GEAS_March_2014.pdf].
Oudada M., 2008, Le pays du Bani. Désenclavement et développement dans le sud du Maroc, Publications de l’université de Provence, 260 p.
Oudada M., 2012, « Notes on the informal Economy in Southern Morocco », in J. McDougall et J. Scheele (ed.), Saharan frontiers. Space and Mobility in Northwest Africa, Indiana University Press, pp. 215-221.
Rachik H., 2000, Comment rester nomade, Casablanca, Afrique Orient, 175 p.
Roccella C. et Varichon A., 2006, Être sable, Paris, Seuil.
Welland M., 2009, Sand – A Journey Through Science and the Imagination, Oxford University Press, 352 p.
Zainabi A., 1989, « Vers une disparition rapide du nomadisme au Sahara marocain : le cas du Dra’ Moyen », in Le nomade, l’oasis et la ville, Cahiers d’URBAMA, XX, univ. de Tours, pp. 49-68.
 Sand is used in construction, industry, agriculture and transport infrastructures as well as in the development of port and tourism facilities in coastal areas. Press reports condemn the organised plundering and murders committed by the sand mafia (particularly in India), and some predict future sand wars. Parts of the Moroccan and Indian coastlines have literally been pillaged, and it is even reported that the Gulf monarchies (as well as Singapore) have made whole islands disappear in Indonesia and the Maldives by dredging the Indian Ocean for marine sands.
 Merzouga is the main town in the commune of Taouz (or Et-Taous), located in the south of Tafilalt. M’Hamid el Ghizlane is situated a further hundred kilometres southeast of Merzouga in the Middle Draa Valley. These two rural towns have almost 7,000 inhabitants each, according to the 2014 RGPH (Recensement Général de la Population et de l’Habitation – general population and housing census). They are the two main tourist sites in the Moroccan desert exploiting the close proximity of dune fields.
 The development of mining, which had begun during the colonial period in the form of a state-owned society and an indigenous cooperative, lasted approximately three decades (from the 1950s to the 1970s) and ‘took place within an adapted framework, with the subcontracting [with] a labour organisation left to the owners’ discretion. […] Under these conditions, the whole group was able to benefit from their subsoil’ (translated from the French) (Lefébure, 1986, 148-151). Today, there are still around ten thousand artisanal miners exploiting the small, low-profit deposits of lead, zinc, copper, iron, fossils and semi-precious stones in southeast Morocco.
 The closing and surveillance of the southeastern Moroccan border has clearly not stopped the flow of contraband to and from Algeria, Mauritania and other Sahelian countries, particularly the trafficking of livestock, subsidised foodstuffs, cigarettes, cannabis resin and petrol (Oudada, 2012).
 The trajectory described here for Merzouga has been identical to that of M’Hamid since the El Mansour Eddahbi dam was built in 1972 (Oudada, 2008: 213). For example, the Draa’s floodplain would occasionally form Lake Iriqui, which was one of the largest pastoral zones in the Moroccan Pre-Sahara, attracting a seasonal influx of herds. Today, it is a designated national park, which is largely desolate and deserted (the rise in the dam’s water level and its release no longer manages to fill the seasonal lake with water). A school and clinic, which are supposedly nomadic but are in fact permanent structures, have been created by a few NGOs, but they have never really been fully operational because primary school teachers and nurses do not generally want to stay there and also because there are not enough pupils and patients to fill them. There is now a café near the seasonal lake with bivouacs for the tourists, where the four-by-fours outnumber the camels.
 M’Hamid, the other tourism hotspot in the Moroccan desert, has experienced the same trajectory both chronologically and economically (Cauvin-Verner, 2007, and Oudada, 2008), albeit it is trailing behind slightly owing to more acute security problems as well as to the authorities’ suspicion regarding the majority presence of the Arib Nouaji tribe, who claim to be Western Saharan, and attacks from the Polisario Front, which persisted until the 1980s. Until 1986, because of the very strong military presence in the region, tourists had to carry a pass during the day and sleep in Zagora at night. In 1996, the young people’s protest demonstrations against unemployment and enclaving led the Ministry of the Interior to issue a large number of permits allowing the creation of agencies and bivouacs.
 In the Merzouga region, the first bivouac was created at the beginning of the 1980s at Ras el Erg, the gateway to the erg from the Erfoud and Rissani trails. Its owner had worked as a lorry driver in France but had returned to Morocco to become a haulier, sometimes carrying tourists. He constructed a simple tent to accommodate those who wished to take a break for refreshments or meet the local populations. He subsequently added a kitchen and tearoom and began offering camels for hire. He ultimately turned his hostel into a permanent structure. Galvanised by his success, others very quickly reproduced the same approach despite moral reticence locally.
 For the past few years, many motorhome travellers (often French retirees), often derisively referred to locally as the ‘Tamalous’, have made their way to southeast Morocco. They generally spend a few days in the region as part of a trip that can last several months (in winter).
 In Morocco, this expression refers to the informal guides who lay in wait for tourists and accost them, offering their services. In Merzouga, they also try to sell them semi-precious stones and fossils and show them how to get to their accommodation or to a bazaar or sand bath site (in return for commission).
 For a more detailed presentation of the touristic development of the Moroccan southeast, see Bouaouinate’s (2008) PhD thesis, which offers a highly informative comparative analysis of Merzouga and M’Hamid.
 Also variously called psammotherapy, psammatotherapy, arenotherapy and sablotherapy depending on the Greek or Latin roots of the word ‘sand’.
 In the absence of any precise official statistics on touristic activity, it is very difficult to quantify the extent of the practice of sand baths. Our local interlocutors estimated that they attract several thousand therapy enthusiasts every year (accompanied by their family members or friends).
 The Saharans do not or only rarely suffer from these illnesses. The sand-based treatments that were formerly used by the Aït Khebbach persist today among the Touaregs. Called tegharghar, they are used to treat fractures, inflammations and tumefactions (Gagnol, 2009).
 Holiday lets have recently sprung up, directed at both the wealthy Moroccan sand bath clientele and the Western tourists.
 The clients are given the ironic nickname of ‘sandfish’ (a type of Saharan lizard) and are mockingly said by the locals to be paying to have someone dig their own graves. Immersion in the sand is thus represented as a burial.
 The women keep their clothes on and generally only have their legs and/or pelvis covered with the sand. The guide is always of the same sex (see Gélard, op. cit.), and there are separate sites for males and females.
 A Korean acupuncturist established in Fez also spends the summer season in Mergouza.
 On the relationship with the desert (badiya) and its heritagisation in Arab countries, see in particular Métral (2010).
 The well-known spas at Hammat Moulay Hachem and particularly Hammat Moulay Ali Cherif are recommended for rheumatic problems. They are situated to the north of Errachidia along the Ziz, on the route between Merzouga and the Atlantic regions. The Moulay Ali Chérif mausoleum near Rissani houses the tomb of the founder of the Alaouite dynasty. In Algeria and Egypt, the situation is much more favourable for therapy enthusiasts because the sand, thermal and religious resources are all concentrated in one place, in other words, the sand bath sites are often also thermal spas and zaouias.
 Moreover, some think, on the quiet, that the sand baths are an effective way of combatting impotence and infertility (with the herbalists also selling many aphrodisiacs).
 While, in Merzouga, many of the festivals that have been created have not lasted, two rival festivals at M’Hamid have continued to run for more than a decade.
 For example, tourism maintains camel farming and the skills needed to train and drive them. However, it is not possible to consider the long-haul méharées, which demand skills acquired through experience in the desert, and the short excursions in bivouacs on the same level. Those who undertake the long-haul méharées say that the camels are poorly trained and badly treated. They only know how to move in a line. As one interlocutor told us, ‘for those with no jobs, there is tourism. There are camels to pull’. These camels are always male and sometimes castrated to avoid any aggressive behaviour. They are shackled at the knee every night so that their owners do not have to go looking for them in the morning, and they are watered from tanks and fed on alfalfa, straw and barley, which is transported from other regions of Morocco. Since pastoralism suffered the consequences of the recurrent droughts, owning an animal is now seen as a luxury. Only a few sheep tend to be kept at people’s houses thanks to the residual cultivation of gardens. While there are still a few families of semi-nomadic or sedentary herdsmen who partly live off the profits of rearing of camels for resale or touristic hire (or indeed for the sale of milk near Merzouga and Rissani), the majority of camels used in tourism come from other regions of Morocco (entrusted to or owned in particular by the Aït Khebbach families that have settled in the Boudnib area) and are bought at the markets (Tinghir and Gelmim). The same is true for the camel hair tents (khaïma) in the bivouacs, which, for want of raw materials, are no longer authentic to the Aït Khebbach. Despite the fact they are best suited to the desert, they actually come from the mountainous regions of the Saghro and the Atlas Mountains, which are populated by other transhumant herdsmen called the Aït Atta.
 With the exception of one Spanish owner, who has a bivouac and two hotels (soon to be three), one of which has the largest capacity in Merzouga (80 beds).
 The women of Merouza only rarely work in tourism. The majority of cooks and housekeepers come from urban areas.
 This internal control in the village also extends to the tourists. As one of our interlocutors confided, ‘here, we control everything. We’re like police officers. We know what the tourists are up to. We keep “records” on them! Some who become known to us are no longer accepted’.
 It is no longer uncommon to find hostels that have a swimming pool, air conditioning, a terrace with panoramic views and an astronomical telescope, and so on. The evolution of the bivouacs is even more striking. The luxury bivouacs and the caidal tents offer a sofa, canopy bed, hot showers in a bathroom with a chemical toilet and electricity from a generator. You can even be dropped off by helicopter in a deluxe bivouac on Erg Chegaga.
 Literally, the ‘leeches spring’ but renamed the ‘sacred oasis’ for the tourists, Oum Lalaag is a small, enclosed palm grove that gives shelter to a bivouac. It has become an obligatory stop-off point on the journey between M’Hamid and Erg Chegaga.
 Only one hotel has been built in the reg, a fair distance away from the dune, but it soon closed because of a lack of customers. At M’Hamid, the dunes and bivouac sites are further away (Erg Chegaga, Lihoudi, Zehar, Hamada ‘Portes du désert’, etc.), and the accommodation is more varied. We noted, for example, a greater number of campsites among the palm groves. The tourism stakeholders at M’Hamid think that, because of its small surface area and excessive number of visitors, Erg Chebbi, unlike Chegaga, is no longer a real desert. They even added that the sand on the Tinfou dunes in the south of Zagora is reported to have been brought there in lorries for a film!
 The catastrophic floods of May 2006 have demonstrated the risks of unsupervised touristic development. They damaged half of the hostels and destroyed around ten more, two of which have not been rebuilt (since they partly belong t to foreign investors, who have tried to lodge a complaint against the local authorities for having given them a permit to build in a flood zone). The rest have been rebuilt on exactly the same spot (Bouaouinate, 2009). Since the floods, planning permission has been more difficult to obtain (both from the commune and the governorate — a simple permit from the sheikh used to suffice), and real estate prices have increased considerably.
 It is clear that Morocco is having real difficulty in developing the desert as a specific tourist activity. For example, despite local demands, there is still no training or official title for the desert tourist guides (unlike their mountain counterparts). The Drâa-Tafilalt region is called ‘Atlas and valleys’ in the new tourist attraction territorial development plan, while the ‘route du Majloul’ of the Programme de développement territorial durable des Oasis du Tafilalt, or POT (Tafilalt Oasis sustainable territorial development programme) promotes oasis ecotourism.
 It is called the Projet de protection et de valorisation par le tourisme durable de zones fragiles (protection and valorisation through sustainable tourism in fragile areas project). Because Erg Chebbi and Dayet Serji are classed as a site of biological and ecological interest extending over 22,700 ha., they are regarded as fragile areas. Aside from the signage and the training of the actors, the project aims to regulate the construction of bivouacs, which have a tendency to proliferate (around thirty on Erg Chegaga and some sixty or so on Erg Chebbi, distributed between a dozen ‘oasis’ sites), by restricting the number of permits issued and establishing standards that will have to be adhered to.
 In Algeria, the Wilaya de Biskra local authorities have banned the practice owing to a number of fatalities but, at the same time, promised to create a specialised treatment centre, although this project never in fact materialised because it did not gain the approval of the Ministry of Health.
 There are no statistics nor any monitoring or management (there is no hospital in Merzouga or specialist service in the region). There is also no evidence of any scientific studies having been carried out on the practice. For example, there are no articles on the sand baths in the journal Maroc Medical, which was founded in 1920. There is also no information appearing on the Moroccan Society for Rheumatology’s website, and there were no papers presented on the subject at the 26th Pan Arab Rheumatology Conference in March 2016 in Marrakech or at the Global Spa & Wellness Summit in Marrakech in 2014.
 In recent years, owing to an increase in the number of accidents and deaths, there has been an awareness that therapy clients should, prior to taking a sand bath, have a consultation with a nurse at the health centre, where doctors are also dispatched during the sand bath season. Sand baths can cause cardiovascular problems and are, in effect, not recommended for the very elderly or for those suffering from hypertension or from cardiovascular or respiratory weaknesses (asthma, diabetes, arteriosclerosis, renal problems, etc.). First-time users are advised to go to the community health centre to have their blood pressure taken before having a sand bath. They are also advised to have only one bath per day, with their chest uncovered and regular rehydration, for a maximum of 5 minutes during the cooler parts of the day (before 11 am and after 4.30 pm).
 The first three were Quebec City in Canada, Aguas Calientes in Peru and Bath in England.
 The emblematic fauna of the ergs (fennec, jerboa, gazelle, etc.) are already thought to have disappeared from Chebbi, most notably because of motorised vehicles. The cesspools of the hostels pollute the phreatic tables and sand bath sites. A golf course development is under review. The local actors largely support this project because they believe that it would mean an increased volume of water being channelled from the Hassan Addakhil dam and bestowed on Merzouga by the state.