Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Wheelchairs and Morocco's Medinas - Making Tourist Spots Accessible

While many travelers with mobility issues decide visiting Morocco is not viable, they should reconsider, says the founder of a new company dedicated to making visitors in wheelchairs feel welcome. Derek Workman reports for The View from Fez.
Marrakech's famous Jmaa el Fna

“Which would you prefer, a limited experience or no experience at all?” The question is put to me by Daniella Johnson while we’re taking a coffee on the terrace of the Café de France, watching the goings on in the beautiful chaos that is Jmaa el Fna, North Africa’s most exotic and vibrant square, the heart and soul of Marrakech.

She has a point. Just because the cobbles in the Medina, the one-thousand year old centre of the historic city might bounce a wheelchair around, the clamour of the merchants in their long, hooded djelabas selling their wares from dolls house-sized shops might slightly confuse someone with limited hearing, or the rapid change from bright sunlight to almost Stygian gloom could disorientate a visually impaired person for a while, is that any reason not to visit one of the most exotic destinations in Africa, and one of the safest? And apart from that, Morocco is far more than ancient alleyways and the hubbub of sandal sellers.

American-born Johnson has been touring the towns and cities of southern Morocco since June of 2011, researching hotels, museums, tourist venues, shops, and sites for the fledgling travel company, Morocco Accessible Travel, which goes live with its first holidays in Spring this year. Trained as a nurse, she lived for a while in France, before discovering Fez, Morocco’s ancient capital, and one of the country’s four imperial cities. Possibly the most beautiful city in the Maghreb, Fez isn’t particularly friendly for people with motor impairment, being built in a valley surround by hills, so when New York-based Experience It! Tours, the parent company of MAT, asked Johonson if she would develop a new travel company specialising in holidays for disabled people, Marrakech was the obvious choice, as the city is almost completely flat.

Taking to the streets of Marrakech by wheelchair
“When I was trying to work out what I wanted for MAT, using the term ‘disabled people’ seemed quite harsh, so when I visit hotels or tour venues I use the terms ‘barrier-free travel’ or ‘travel for people with unique needs’, because they are much more inclusive. A ramp at the entrance to a museum is equally as useful for a family with a push chair, or an elderly person who needs to use some form of walking aid, as it is for a wheelchair user. Put that ramp in place to remove the barrier of having to climb a set of stairs and you suddenly open up your hotel or venue to a much broader audience, which is as much a benefit for local people as it is for visitors.”

We finish our coffee and take a walk across Jmaa el Fna, beginning at a music shop blaring out Moroccan disco music. I switch on my small recorder and we walk slowly; past the storytellers regaling the audience with their lyrical chant, the wail of a snake charmer’s flute, a monkey man who tries to put his chattering animal on my shoulder, the clashing of the small hand cymbals and insistent drum beat of the gnaou musicians, the cries of hawkers selling toys, the jingling of coins in the hand of the cigarette seller, and the babble of Arabic, French, Berber and a hundred and one different languages. When I listen to it later it sounds as if I’m tuning a radio in Africa, passing through the waves with each sound ebbing and flowing as I change stations. The scent of smoke and barbequed food fills the air as the al fresco stalls that make Jmaa el Fna the largest open-air restaurant in the world begin setting up. A hint of incense, a whispy aroma of jasmine and freshly squeezed orange juice, with the occasional rustic whiff of horse dung as a calache trots by; all blend together to create an exotic perfume.

“I’m really encouraged by the reaction I’ve had, particularly from hotel owners. The fact is that often it simply hasn’t occurred to them to think of disabled people as a tourism ‘market’, if you care to use that term, or that with a few simple changes they can make their hotels and venues easily accessible. In many ways it’s probably because of the culture of Morocco. Moroccans get very little state help for disabled people, so they are used to dealing with any difficulties within the family. Because of that they are very supportive of what I’m trying to do.”

A first time visitor to Fez navigates the souks
One of the charms of a visit to Marrakech is a stay in a riad in the Medina, one of the original houses where life revolves around an inner courtyard garden. Most have roof-top terraces with views across to the city to the peaks of the High Atlas Mountains in the distance. The large riads often have swimming pools on the terrace. Unfortunately, stairways are usually quite narrow and dark, with steps of uneven heights and no handrails, making access to the terraces sometimes quite difficult.

“A few of the riads have elevators, but the truth is that if someone with any sort of motor problems wants to visit Marrakech then I would advise them to stay in a hotel,” says Johnson.

But that’s no hardship. Marrakech is overflowing with hotels of all levels, from the basic somewhere-to-lay-your-head to the glory of La Mamounia, the gem of Marrakech hotels, that recently reopened after a $176 million refurbishment.

On a recent visit to the Ben Youssef Maderssa, the 14th-century Islamic college, the largest in Morocco and one of Marrakech’s most visited monuments, Johnson came across a group of wheelchairs users and their helpers.

“It was such a surprise, but even though they could only visit the ground floor rooms everyone was so happy to have been able to see this beautiful and important monument. But one of the things that moved me most was they all said that anything is possible, we can do it.

“Things will change slowly, it’s the nature of what happens here, but they are changing. There is very little adapted transport available at the moment, although a new red tour bus service recently started, which has wheelchair access and you can get on and off at various points around the city. You may find that access or facilities for disabled people are more limited than you might find elsewhere, but if you can accept some limitations, Morocco is a wonderful country to visit. There are the mountains, the dessert, the ocean, and some beautiful cities. But one of the best reasons to visit the country are the Moroccans themselves. They are a delightful and charming people who will go out of their way to help.”

Morocco Accessible Travel will soon be launching their first Barrier Free holidays, but are happy to custom designed holidays in Morocco to suite individual needs. For more information visit. www.moroccoaccessibletravel.com

For any disabled person who is nervous about travelling to Morocco, take heart from Nancy and Nate Berger’s story HERE. 

Derek Workman is an English journalist living in Valencia City, Spain – although he admits to a love of Morocco and would love to up sticks and move here. To read more about life in Spain visit Spain Uncovered. Articles and books can also be found at Digital Paparazzi.



Wheelchair said...

Hey, very nice site. I came across this on Google, and I am stoked that I did. I will definitely be coming back here more often. Wish I could add to the conversation and bring a bit more to the table, but am just taking in as much info as I can at the moment. Thanks for sharing.

Keep Posting:)

Anonymous said...

Looks like I've found at last ...some sort of accessibility, it's up to me now....thanx ☺️