After all the turmoil of the "Arab Spring", the aftermath of the Marrakech bombing and the uncertainty surrounding the global financial crisis, Moroccan tourism went into a slump. The visitor numbers dropped, accommodation bookings were at record low levels and the general economy suffered. Ibn Warraq reports on what may be the beginnings of recovery
The vital signs are good and Moroccan tourism is growing again. No one expects the recovery to be rapid, but bookings in Marrakech and Fez are improving and there have even been tourists spotted in Casablanca. Thankfully, there has also been a revival of interest from the media as well.
Recently Marrakech got a boost from a "city break" article in the UK newspaper, The Telegraph. The story was by well known Marrakech expert and Lonely Planet author, Alison Bing, and gives a very useful snapshot of advice on everything from shopping to hotels and restaurants.
"When navigating narrow Medina alleyways, bear in mind unofficial rights of way: 1) anything with hooves; 2) anything on wheels; 3) anyone with a stick; 4) babies; 5) women shopping." - Alison Bing
Alison Bing's picks of five top things to see is great starting point for first time visitors.
Unesco designated it a World Heritage site (1), but this lopsided square isn't a monument: it’s mayhem. Snake charmers, acrobats and potion peddlers are only the opening acts. At sunset, 100 chefs and their portable grills reignite the world’s fiercest barbecue competition. Amid swirls of kebab smoke, the performers arrive.
At the south-west end are cross-dressing belly dancers and (worryingly) amateur boxers; in the north-east corner are animated storytellers and starry-eyed astrologers; between the two are Berber jam sessions, unwinnable carnival games and the odd dentist. Halqa (street theatre) has taken place nightly here for 1,000 years, yet the show never gets old.
Souks and Fondouks
Paris and Milan can’t compete with Marrakesh, where artisans create new designs daily using ancient tools. In northern souks (market streets), modern maalems (master craftsmen) reinvigorate time-honoured trades such as blacksmithing, saddle-making and lute-carving.
Glimpse original works in progress along Rue Dar el-Bacha, inside fondouks (medieval courtyard workshops) where maalems gingerly tap out zellij (puzzlework mosaics) and whittle orangewood into minimalist mashrabiyya (lattice screens).
Ali ben Youssef Medersa
Fez claims credit as Morocco’s spiritual centre, yet at the heart of Marrakesh is a heavenly 14th-century structure that was once North Africa's largest Islamic study centre (Souq el-Fassi, near Place ben Youssef; entry £2.50) (2).
Wood-carved balconies are open to the sky and lined with dorm rooms where up to 900 students pursued higher education. Visitors at a loss for words need only look to the arcaded courtyard – a marvel of calligraphy in zellij, plaster, Atlas cedar, and, in the mihrab (eastern-facing prayer niche), Carrara marble.
Misleadingly described in tourist literature as a spa, a true Moroccan hammam is more roughhousing than relaxation. Public bathhouses such as the Hammam el-Bacha offer traditional gommage, a full-body scrub performed by a bossy tabbeya (bath attendant), who restores skin to newborn condition with a rough glove and ruthless efficiency (Rue Fatima Zohra; entry 75p, gommage £2.50).
Visitors prone to shyness or sensitive skin will appreciate the more modern hammams of Marrakesh, with private steam rooms and soothing argan-oil massages. Some guesthouses have in-house hammams; otherwise, book an afternoon appointment to loll around subterranean steam rooms and secluded patios at Le Bain Bleu (3) (00 212 524 426999, www.lebainbleu.com) (3) at 32 Derb Chorfa Lakbir, off Rue Mouassine. Hammam and gommage £11; massage from £26 per hour.
Cactus meets couture in this garden (4) bequeathed to Marrakesh by Yves Saint Laurent (www.jardinmajorelle.com; open daily, 8am-5.30pm; entry £2.50). Rare flora from five continents thrive in the shadow of a cobalt-blue art deco villa, built in 1931 by painter Jacques Majorelle and preserved for posterity by his partner, the visionary designer Pierre Bergé, and ethno-botanist Touriya Abd. Live like a supermodel: skip lunch in the overpriced café (salad £10, juice £5), admire Majorelle watercolors inside the villa (entry £2.50), and then pay your respects alongside African songbirds at the YSL garden memorial.
Read much more from Alison Bing here: The Telegraph
In this kingdom of the Moors, there’s mysticism, mythology and magic. - Andrew TrimbeeAt the same time as Ms Bing was doing her sterling work promoting Marrakech, Andrew Trimbee was waxing lyrical for the Mail on Line about the joys of Fez. While not a writer in the same league as Alison Bing, he did manage to craft a few stunning lines in true Orientalist fashion. Here is a taste...
This medieval walled city, the cultural and spiritual centre of Morocco, sprawling across green hills, is only three hours’ flying time from London, but a world away from Europe.
This is North Africa Islamic, where the clang of coppersmiths in the labyrinthine souk merges with shrill Moroccan pop and the calls to prayer from a skyline of minarets.
Explore the maze of streets that criss-cross the souk, where each craft has its own area, from goldsmiths to herbalists, and you’ll unlock the age-old allure of Fez.
In this kingdom of the Moors, there’s mysticism, mythology and magic. As dusk falls, crowds throng the main squares to watch conjurors, snake-charmers, letter-writers, story-tellers and fortune-tellers.
You can buy a cure for any illness, even a guaranteed love potion. The people are a cocktail of Berbers, Arabs, Africans and descendants of slaves. The dress has changed little — hooded djellaba cloaks, red tarboosh hat (the fez) and open-heeled babouche slippers.
Read more from Andrew at The Daily Mail:
Now while I prefer the hard-hitting Ms Bing to the poetry of Mr Trimbee, I have to confess, that no matter what style of journalism is employed to get Moroccan tourism back on its feet - it all helps.
And out in the mystical streets and magical souqs, the mood is optimistic. Si Mohammed, who runs a well known antique store on the Talaa Sghira in Fez is very upbeat. "This is the month of the recovery. On the fifteenth people will start coming back!"
The fifteenth, Huh? That's only five days away. So, there you have it. Your have only a few days to prepare, to roll out the welcome mat, brew the mint tea and dust off your old red fez. The visitors are coming and you can't say that you haven't been warned.