Morocco offers a seamless, exciting and unforgettable experience of a cultural crossroads between East and West. Now, the country is aiming for more than just European tourists, writes William Bauer.
Morocco’s image has changed dramatically in the past fifty years. Gone are the days of it being the country of choice for washed out and kif smoking hippies from Europe and North America. Quasi-forgotten also, is the epoch of Western intellectuals reclining in atmospheric Moroccan cities such as Tangiers – the city of George Eliott, Truman Capote and William Burroughs.
Today, Morocco is the home of the budget holiday; the meeting point of Europe and North Africa; and a destination de rigeur for the legions of Easy Jet-ers and Ryan Air groupies who flock to the country. Morocco has now ditched its previously shady and somewhat louche image of a drug and wild party European hinterland. Now it is reincaranated as a modern, clean and family friendly place where hedonism is encouraged but excess is not. So successful has this gradual rebranding exercise been that 2012 is estimated to bring $8 billion into the country through tourism alone. Not bad for a country in a region still reeling from the economic consequences of the Arab spring.
It should come as no surprise therefore that Morocco is seeking to increase this highly lucrative revenue stream, upgrading it to attract more and more people from abroad. But there’s been a change in focus. The days of exclusively trying to appeal to Europe are over; rather Morocco is now tapping into the lucrative Middle Eastern and Far East markets. Indeed, with the current economic crisis gripping the Euro zone, many people there are staying home or holidaying within the geographical confines of Europe. However, the same cannot be said for other – more economically buoyant countries – such as those from the Arabian Gulf and further afield in the East.
An upsurge in visitors from East rather than West is governed by two main factors. Firstly, Morocco is a destination that is relatively quick and easy to access on a par with Western Europe in terms of travel time, and of course much cheaper. Secondly – and this only really applies to those coming from the MENA region itself – Morocco is a crossroads in terms of culture, it hosts Arab, Berber and elements of European culture in a setting that is relaxed and secure. Thus, when compared to other destinations within the Middle East such as Lebanon or Egypt, Morocco is a safe, fun, liberal and vibrant but not wholly alien destination for travelers and tourists of Middle East extraction.
Evidently Morocco has a lot to offer the Eastern traveler; but in this era of austerity in Europe, what does Morocco have to offer the perpetually cash-strapped Euro backpacker or perennially budget conscious family? Well, it offers a seamless, exciting and unforgettable experience of a cultural crossroads between East and West, Europe and Africa; something quintessentially North African.
There is a plethora of choice in terms of activities to do whilst in the country. For those whose love of history and culture trumps all, then the souks of Marrakesh and the old city of Fez are not to miss. Others might want to surf at Essaouria on the Atlantic coast, where the waves are legendary and the atmosphere highly convivial. For something different, a visit to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla is highly recommended. Finally, for the truly adventurous, a ride into the desert at Erg Cherbi is unbeatable in terms of the total silence that reigns over the only portion of the Sahara desert in Morocco, allowing ample time for reflection.
It is safe to say that with tourism in Morocco reaching ever greater numbers, the country has trodden the path between short term gain and long term investment well. It has chosen to increase its drive to attract more people to visit the Kingdom but has also sought to maintain its unique culture as one that lives in the streets and houses of ordinary Moroccans, not just in museums or tourist centered places. However, Morocco’s continued success and determination to build a sustainable tourist industry is also one subject to prevailing winds of political change currently blowing throughout the region and beyond.
So far the Kingdom has been spared any great turbulence and demands for thorough reform. This can and might yet change. In that case Morocco would have the metaphorical magical carpet of tourism yanked from under them as fast as one can say tagine. Ensuring the competing political and economic interests are met, is key to continuing success in the Morocco tourist industry; and to the prosperity of Moroccans across the nation whose livelihoods and fortunes depend on those budget carriers and flocks of sun and fun seekers.