Western Sahara is an area in North Africa bordering the Atlantic Ocean, between Mauritania and Morocco. Its governance is disputed between Morocco and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), but the majority of it is occupied by Morocco.
None of the content in this guide should be taken as a political endorsement of claims by either side in the dispute over the sovereignty of these territories.
While there is a large coastline, much of it is rocky and not fit for beaches or travel. Large-scale fishing and ports are at Ad Dakhla. Much of the territory is arid desert. The area near the sand wall created by the Moroccan military (also known as "the berm") is surrounded by land mines and should be avoided. Administratively, the territory was divided by Spain into two regions: the northern strip, known as Saguia el-Hamra, and the southern two-thirds, named Río de Oro.
Morocco occupied and annexed the northern two-thirds of Western Sahara (formerly Spanish Sahara) in 1976, and much of the southern portion of the territory in 1979, following Mauritania's withdrawal. A guerrilla war with the liberation movement Polisario Front contesting Rabat's sovereignty ended in a 1991 cease-fire; a referendum on final status has been repeatedly postponed. The Polisario declared the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) in 1976, but the country has only been recognized by around 28 states and has actual control over only a largely uninhabited eastern slice of territory.
Western Sahara's inhabitants, known as Sahrawis, are of Arab and Berber ethnicity and speak the Hassānīya dialect of Arabic.
Western Sahara depends on pastoral nomadism, fishing, and phosphate mining as the principal sources of income for the population. The territory lacks sufficient rainfall for sustainable agricultural production, and most of the food for the urban population must be imported. Virtually all trade and other economic activities are controlled by the Moroccan government. Moroccan energy interests in 2001 signed contracts to explore for oil off the coast of Western Sahara, a move that has angered Polisario and international observers. Incomes and standards of living in Western Sahara are substantially below the Moroccan level.
Western Sahara is a hot, dry desert; consequently, rain is rare, but flash floods occur. Cold offshore air currents produce fog and heavy dew. Due to the inability of sand to absorb heat, harsh cold nights are common.
Mostly low, flat desert, with large areas of rocky or sandy surfaces rising to small mountains in south and northeast. Low-lying sand dunes cover the territory.
If you are travelling overland, you will find no border formalities between Morocco and Western Sahara. Your passport may be asked for at the many checkpoints on the road south, but will not be stamped and thus technically you are still in Morocco.
For those interested in sight-seeing, there are few opportunities for wildlife or natural formations other than the dunes. The area controlled by the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) - known as the Free Zone or Liberated Territories - is of interest to those interested in the political conflict.
The vast majority of Western Sahara is administered by Morocco, which considers it an integral part of its territory, so the same entry conditions apply as for Morocco itself. However, independent travel in the region is restricted, and while crossing through Western Sahara while travelling overland between Morocco and Mauritania is usually OK, some travellers have been turned back when trying to enter, especially during periods of political strife.
Official entry requirements for SADR-controlled areas are unclear, but in practice the area is entirely off-limits to visitors: you cannot legally cross the heavily guarded and mined Berm from the Moroccan-controlled side, the land border with Algeria is closed, and there are no legal border crossings from Mauritania into SADR-controlled territory either.
The only international airport is in El Aaiun, the capital. Flights come from the Canary Islands, Morocco, and Spain. Other airports are located in Dakhla and Smara.
There are currently no regular trains from El Aaiún from Marrakech, however a line is planned. There is no train service between Agadir and Al Ayun.
To arrive by car, one must either pass through Moroccan-controlled checkpoints along the border or enter into the Free Zone through Mauritania. The latter has virtually no roads, so driving will be possible only with a sport-utility vehicle. Several checkpoints through Mauritania are closed and there is a huge swath of landmines along the berm. Driving with a few miles of it is extremely dangerous. The Sahrawis have been destroying landmines on their side of the berm, but the territory still has one of the highest concentrations of landmines in the world.
Buses are present only in large metropolitan districts, such as El Aauin and Smara. There are direct services from Casablanca and Marrakech to Dakhla (running through Agadir, Tan Tan and Laayoune), frequent services run from Laayoune to major transport hubs in southern Morocco.
The only boats that go to or from Western Sahara come from the Canaries. In 2010, a new passenger ferry was opened by Naviera Armas from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.
The Sahrawis of Western Sahara speak the Hassaniya dialect of Arabic. The literacy level is likely lower than that of Morocco, which is 50%, so expect to speak rather than write. Some old signs are still written in Spanish. The Sahrawi population living in the refugee camps located in Algeria are over 90% literate, and some of the older Sahrawi generation still speak Spanish. As a consequence of Moroccan occupation, French can be used with a small business class.
The Moroccan dirham is the official currency of the Moroccan-controlled portion, although the SADR has also minted its own pesetas.
Prices are lower than in Morocco, in part due to Moroccan government's subsidization policy.
Traditional Sahrawi hospitality includes the serving of tea to all guests in one's home.
Hot, dry, dust/sand-laden sirocco wind can occur during winter and spring; widespread harmattan haze exists 60% of time, often severely restricting visibility.
The culture is Islamic but not particularly strict; the form of Islam that developed among the nomad population is non-mosque-based. Political and social displays of Sahrawi nationalism are violently repressed by the Moroccan police and military.
Teleboutiques and internet cafes are not hard to find in the cities, but connection speed may vary from place to place.