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Morocco has long been the gateway to Africa from Europe, and over the last few years it has experienced a tourism boom. Growing numbers of foreign visitors to the North African kingdom are expected as the government rolls out a programme to meet ambitious tourism targets as part of its Vision 2020. The country’s deserts, beaches, mountains and distinct cultural heritage are naturally attractive to holidaymakers and adventurers, bringing in welcome revenue. But according to those in the industry, inflows should be carefully managed in order to guard against the negative effects of tourism, some of which have already impacted neighbourhoods around popular cities like Marrakech.
Tourism has long been a fundamental economic pillar in Morocco and crucial to any fiscal strategy, as demonstrated by the government’s Vision 2020 target of Moroccan dirhams (MAD) 140 billion ($14.59 billion) to be derived from the sector. In 2018, revenue from tourism rose to MAD 73.15 billion from MAD 69.7 billion in 2017, making it a significant source of hard currency.
In recent years, however, travel to the region waned due to general instability even though Morocco itself has been relatively secure. Economic instability in some of the countries that have traditionally provided Morocco with tourists also contributed to this downward trend.
Now growth has slowly returned. According to the Oxford Business Group (OBG), in 2016, tourism accounted for 8.1 per cent of gross domestic product and 7.1 per cent of employment, as total arrivals grew by 1.5 per cent compared to the previous year. In 2017, in the first quarter alone there was a year-on-year growth rate of 7.9 per cent. By November 2017, the period’s upturn was 10 per cent compared to the previous year. In 2018, this growth continued as Morocco reportedly received 12 million tourists, another 8.5 per cent jump on the previous year. In the first four months of 2019, there were 3.6 million visitors to Morocco, a 6 per cent increase from the same period in 2018, and this growth is expected to continue.
Agadir and Marrakech are the most popular destinations for hotel stays, according to the Moroccan Tourism Observatory, accounting for 59 per cent of hotel nights in the first quarter of 2019, and tourist arrivals to these destinations rose by 4 and 8 per cent respectively. Tangier also saw tourist arrivals increase by 9 per cent. While Agadir and Tangier are on the coast, Marrakech is an inland city famous for its bustling souks and walled medina, although all three offer access to the Rif or Atlas mountain ranges.
Several construction projects are underway to try and increase the number of hotel rooms – the Vision 2020 target is to expand room capacity to 375,000 or 200,000 new beds – but also to encourage people to stay for longer by building resorts as well as luxury accommodation. For example, M Avenue in Marrakech is a $100 million project that will see around 2,700 square metres of gardens and landscaping, shops, cafes and galleries accompany luxury lodgings from brands like the Four Seasons.
One of the factors boosting tourism, according to the OBG, is the diversification of source markets, meaning visitors to Morocco are coming from different countries. One report cites most of these new tourists as coming from the United States – figures for the first four months of 2019 show that the number of American visitors increased by 14 per cent. Hosting the COP22 climate change conference in 2016 also gave the government a chance to maximize its tourism opportunities, and officials ran a short-term campaign that manifested in a number of promotional activities and new flight routes. A new route between Casablanca and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, for instance, could present “huge potential”, as Moroccan ambassador to Malaysia Mohamed Reda Benkhaldoun said in July 2019. The number of Malaysian visitors to the country has increased from an average of 3,000 per year to 5,000 since the visa requirement between the two countries was abolished in 2017. A new route could boost that number further. Russian and Chinese markets are also in the government’s sights to help meet the ambitious Vision 2020 targets.
These targets would see the industry double in size, which the government intends to achieve by establishing Morocco as one of the top-20 tourist destinations in the world through programmes in six areas: development around the coast, culture and heritage tourism, entertainment, sport and leisure, sustainable tourism and domestic tourism.
Several programmes are already underway, including a MAD 14 million investment around the northern Dakhla Corniche in the Sahara region, an area that is being eyeballed for a number of development projects to exploit its natural sites.
Domestic tourism, which has been declining due to cheaper options abroad such as Spain’s Costa del Sol, is a particular focus area. Encouraging Moroccans to vacation at home by offering them more affordable options could show significant promise for the tourism industry. “We are seeing more and more domestic tourism with a growing middle class travelling within the country,” Kamil Sellami, director general at Hotel Le Doge told OBG.
Maximizing these opportunities will not only bring in state income, but benefits are thought to trickle down by creating jobs, for instance. In addition, the Global Heritage Fund (GHF) told Fanack that if well managed, tourism can also help protect historic sites and provide the economic support that local businesses need.
“Increased tourism can be a double-edged sword for historic sites,” said GHF, an organization that supports communities with capacity-building programmes and local initiatives that it says balances site protection with modern visitor interests.
GHF gave the example of Morocco’s communal granaries, some of which are still in use and which one travel writer described as some of the most attractive in North Africa.
“Whether they are in use by communities or not, they have the potential to draw tourists to remote areas outside of the well-known destinations — but they are in need of urgent rehabilitation,” explained GHF. “If we let them collapse, the granaries will no longer attract travellers, which affects the much-needed tourism incomes some communities depend on.”
Aside from the benefits of tourism, particularly sustainable tourism, GHF points out that mismanaged tourism can lead to damage, both physically at sites and also to cultural values and tradition for which travellers must take responsibility as well as to reduce any negative impact. Ways in which they can do this include planning trips out of peak season or heading to more destinations off the beaten path.
“It is also more enriching since travellers are not just ticking a box; rather, they are discovering the world in a way that is authentically connected to people and cultures,” said GHF.
The economic promise of tourism has also affected security as police crack down on criminality. For instance, in December 2018, the murder of two tourists who were climbing Mount Toubkal prompted law enforcement to ramp up operations in the area that had seen increasing numbers of tourists and hikers enjoying the mountain’s trails. Tourist police now patrol popular areas, checking ID cards, arresting Moroccans for public drunkenness, theft, begging and working without a guide licence.
The other downside of the tourism boom is the gentrification of neighbourhoods, specifically fuelled by rising visitor numbers and foreign investment. As OBG reported, riads – traditional houses built round an internal garden – are among the most popular forms of tourist accommodation, accounting for 51 per cent of accommodation listings in 2015, but they are being increasingly bought by European investors. Some riads are advertised on Airbnb, although Moroccan authorities are cracking down on global online accommodation portals like the homestay listing site and Booking.com by levying taxes against them in an effort to protect local businesses and markets.
As long as Moroccan entities charged with the oversight of tourism development exercise responsibility and manage the potential pitfalls that foreign visitors and investment can bring, the country could be setting the stage for a more prominent spot in the world travel charts.