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Introduction

Although an extremely impoverished, landlocked nation, Niger continues to receive an influx of travelers today. Tourism centers around exploring desert terrain and nomadic traditions that are the roots of the country's fascinating, often tumultuous history. Outsiders will quickly grow to appreciate the excessive warmth and hospitality typically extended toward strangers, and the Nigerien people hold a reputation for generosity that shines the brightest of West Africa.

Niger is home to 13 million people, most of who practice Islam (with estimates at 80%). The official language is French, although Arabic, Songhai, Hausa, and Tamashek are also spoken. Hausa is commonly spoken as a first or second language throughout the country. Literacy remains as low as 15% in many regions.

The ancient empires of Niger were based on the control of trade in gold, slaves and salt, and the country remains a crossroads for West Africa. In 1000 A.D. the nomadic Tuareg people began consolidating influence in the central regions of present-day Niger, founding an empire emanating from the city of Agadez. Confederations of nomadic Tuareg people pushed southward toward the Songhai empire, where they came into direct clash with the much larger Hausa populations of the Fulani Empire at its peak of power. Fulani conquest of nomadic Tuareg people initiated a pattern of suppression that would endure and influence future politics.

French pacification efforts in the early twentieth century instilled temporary peace, but the minority Tuareg population, which represents approximately 8% of Niger, continued to resist subjugation. Severe drought followed the grant of independence in 1960, and Diroi's government, infamous for corruption, was overthrown. Successive regimes banned opposition parties, suspended the constitution, and even dissolved the National Assembly. The country's leaders in the early 1990s were pressured by the people to accept multiparty politics, in line with a continent-wide democracy movement, and elections were held. A coup followed in 1996, but the leader of that regime was assassinated three years later and democracy was restored. President Mamadou Tandja was reelected in 2004.

Niger currently holds status as one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking at the bottom of the UN Development Index. Although Niger does lead the world as a producer of uranium, the local people generally do not benefit from the proceeds of this export. Government services are particularly poor throughout the region and public services are poorly funded. The economy, which disproportionately relies on subsistence agrarian enterprise, suffers from periodic, severe drought, which wreaks devastation on the Nigerien people.

Despite Niger's weak economy and civil service sector, tourism thrives during the winter months (November-March) throughout the country, and particularly in the desert, northern regions. Some Nigeriens are able to escape the cycle of poverty by joining the tourist industry labor force, and tourist investment holds promising prospects for the country. There is some important variation in Niger's land and climate, although temperatures generally range between hot, hotter, and hottest. The Niger River, from which the country derives its name, winds through the southwest corner as the only permanent source of water available to the entire country. In the central region of Niger, a common tourist destination, the Air Mountains climb as high as 2,000 meters. The northern area of Niger, which accounts for at least half of the country's landmass, is consumed by complete desert, with the exception of pockets of man-made oases. In many areas of the Sahara, rain falls only once a year, between July and August. Desertification and climate change impact Niger more drastically than any other region in the world. Lake Chad, once an essential water source, has recently disappeared on Niger's eastern border, and the Sahara continues to spread into the 3% of the country's arable land located mostly in the Sahel, located in the lower fifth of the country. The extreme south of the country benefits from more tropical conditions with a more stable and constant rainfall; wildlife is abundant in this region. Niamey, the capital, rests by the Niger River at the edge of the Sahel sands, which are beginning to dangerously encroach into the city's interior. The city's rapidly growing population numbers approximately 750,000. Although the infrastructure has hardly developed to accommodate this growth, the city has plenty of attractions and sights that draw millions annually. Visitors flock to the National Museum of Niger, which includes an artisan center, a zoo, what is billed as the last tree of the Sahara, and dinosaur skeletons from Niger's own desert terrain. Many choose to float down the Niger River in pirogues at sunset. The Great Market of Niamey, one of the largest and most colorful in the country, has every commodity one could possibly want to bargain for in Niger. Niamey is also home to many great restaurants and even a few luxury hotels, and the nightlife is great for many young tourists. Although Niamey is a bustling city, it does not lose the small-village atmosphere, as hospitality and warmth are extended to all visitors. Crime -- thefts, robberies, and residential break-ins -- is sometimes a problem in Niger, and particularly in Niamey. Travelers should never walk alone and should take caution in areas including the Gaweye Hotel, National Museum, and the Kennedy Bridge night and day. The Nigerien government has publicly acknowledged the issue of corruption in Niger, and the United States embassy asks that all travelers politely refuse demands for bribes throughout the country. In Southern Niger, naturalists will find their haven at the Parc National du W du Niger, one of the best wildlife preserves in West Africa. Zinder, the first capital of Niger, is also a very popular destination for its artisan centers, markets, and calm atmosphere. The Great Market in Zinder attracts people from far reaches on a daily basis, and the elaborate Sultan's Palace still serves as a residence for the sultan. Zinder's ?counterpart? in the north, Agadez, in the center of the desert. Both cities share similar relaxed environments, mud-brick architecture, and craft techniques. The journey to Agadez is most commonly started from Niamey, and there are several possible modes of transportation.

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