( dpa )- In the historic Mauritanian desert town of Chinguetti - the country's main hope for tourism - hotels, restaurants, craft shops, travel agencies and petrol sales points are languishing.
Some are half-empty, while others have closed down.
In the capital Nouakchott as well, the economy is feeling the impact of a sudden decline in tourism after the cancellation of the Lisbon-Dakar rally, which normally passes through the north-west African Islamic republic, over security concerns earlier this month.
Western secret services fear that the vast, sparsely inhabited Sahara country could be turning into a hideout of Islamist militants, but Mauritanians regard such concerns as exaggerated.
"Of course there is no zero risk anywhere," Foreign Minister Mohammed Salek Ould Mohammed Lemine said recently.
But the Dakar rally "could have taken place in good conditions," he grumbled.
The rally had been important economically for Mauritania, which it helped to put on the tourism map especially in France.
Now, however, French tourists are switching to other African destinations, scared by the killing of four French tourists who were gunned down while picnicking on a roadside south-east of Nouakchott in December.
A few days later, at least three Mauritanian soldiers were killed in an attack claimed by al-Qaeda's north African branch.
For several years already, dozens of US experts have trained the Mauritanian army in counterterrorism tactics, an exercise which is expected to be repeated this year.
A former French colony with 3.3 million residents, Mauritania has won praise as an African democratic model after its military junta handed power over to civilians in a string of elections culminating in a presidential poll in 2007.
Mauritania's tolerant and hospitable brand of Islam is thought to have helped to spare it from the kind of violence that has affected Algeria and Morocco.
However, Mauritania forms part of Africa's restless Sahel zone, which is known for the presence of Tuareg rebels, arms and drug traffickers, and smugglers of undocumented migrants heading for Europe.
The Algerian-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb , formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), is believed to have training camps and mobile units especially in southern Algeria, northern Mali, and Niger.
The organization, which has links with cocaine traffickers, trains people recruited in North Africa and Europe to stage attacks in Algeria and Iraq, Western press reports have quoted French and Spanish intelligence sources as saying.
Already in 2005, US personnel and the armies of seven countries in the region took part in a counterterrorism training operation which started in Mauritania.
Yet if there are al-Qaeda training camps somewhere in the Mauritanian desert, they are well-hidden indeed, according to local observers, who nevertheless do not exclude a moderate risk of an increase in extremism.
Dozens of extremist suspects have been detained in the recent years, and the killing of the French tourists prompted Mauritania to launch a new anti-extremist offensive.
Nearly 20 people have been arrested in connection with the killings, as have several other suspected radicals.
Mauritanian police currently estimate the number of al-Qaeda- linked Islamists in the country at about 30, though it is suspected that more young Mauritanians have travelled to Algeria to join extremist ranks.
"The killing of the French tourists attracted so much attention precisely because such things have never happened in Mauritania," a Nouakchott analyst points out.
Mauritania is "one of the safest countries" in the world, President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi told the Spanish daily El Pais .
Western observers have reported an increase of Saudi- or Yemeni- financed mosques, which represent a more conservative line of Islam than the traditional Mauritanian brand, but Cheikh Abdallahi said the mosques had "nothing to do" with terrorism.
"The different doctrines of Islam have a common source and none of them is dangerous in itself," he explained.