Since its inception in 1910, the Festival of the Sahara is a celebration of the traditional way of life of Tunisians with plenty of music, food, ceremonies and activities that portray the culture of the people, which has also become Tunisia’s top media event drawing in huge revenue for the country.
The festival, Initially known as the Camel Festival, was started by the French rulers for the sole purpose of camelback riding on the desert which had become a favourite pass time for them.
An important North African event, the festival’s shortcoming lies in its vast cultural differences which has made it unable to lure other Africans into its celebration. This however has not impinged on as it has gradually translated from a locally anticipated celebration to an international festival drawing in up to 50, 000 people from all over the world every year.
After attaining independence in 1956, the locals decided to maintain the festival as part of their heritage and celebrated it as the Camel Festival for 11 more years.
In 1967, the then Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba modified the festival to be more relevant to the Tunisian society to depict and preserve its traditional culture. Even though the camelback riding was still a part of the festival, the festival was renamed the Festival of the Sahara.
The festival is held in Douz, Tunisia at the end of December between 20th and 24th as a tribute to the spirit of the Sahara. Festival dates are announced a few months before the festival to help interested tourists prepare and book hotels closer to the venue.
On the first day of the festival, a colourful opening ceremony is held. During the opening ceremony, locals and people from neighbouring countries come to display their camels and donkeys in healthy competition and the crowd is made to cheer on. The ceremony is also graced with traditional dancers and musicians including children in groups who perform to cheering participants.
During the festival, visitors can camp close to venues that are well protected. Visitors who come for the festival can partake in specific riding competitions and are spoilt for choice with a wide variety of local food and drinks to try to have a taste of nomadic life.
The four-day festival also entails animal marathons and a special Bedouin marriage with its elaborate ceremony where the bride is dressed in a very elaborate and colourful traditional wear.
The festival also entails rabbit hunting and traditional food making and in the evenings, riding on camel backs with friends, guests are treated to traditional storytelling, dancing and singing with a special poetry performance by Abdellatif Belgacem.