Essaouira is at the centre of a dispute between Royal Air Maroc (RAM) and the Moroccan Office of Tourism. The decision by RAM to end the three flights a week between Paris and Essaouira has caused an uproar and the city is not taking it lightly. The Paris -Essaouira link had been running for ten years.
A conference on Saturday, organized by the Governor of the Province, brought together a wide range of important figures for a a briefing on the future of flights to Essaouira and the measures proposed by the Moroccan National Office of Tourism (ONMT).
From the local government sector were the Governor of the Province of Essaouira, the Provincial Delegate of Tourism in Essaouira, President of the Municipal Council of Essaouira, the Provincial Delegate of culture and, importantly, André Azoulay, the adviser of His Majesty Mohammed VI and a fervent ambassador for the city.
Ironically, it was only a couple of weeks ago that The View from Fez reported on the tourism boom in Essaouira (See story here; Boom Town). The city has long been one of Morocco's iconic cities and a destination popular with fans of Gnawa music who gather in their thousands for the annual Gnawa Festival.
The Paris-Essaouira link provided by RAM has been removed as, according to the airline, it was no longer profitable. At least 17 unprofitable routes were removed by RAM as part of its restructuring plan in 2011 which resulted in early retirement for more than 2,000 employees.
An official of RAM, quoted by The Economist, said, 'We kept this route until now so as not to cause disruption. In addition, for tourism considerations, we did not want to reduce arrivals'.
There is also another reason. Transavia, the low cost subsidiary of the Air France group, has two weekly flights to Essaouira from Orly at very attractive rates that RAM says it can not match. 'The real problem lies not in commercial competition,' says RAM, 'The French company is subsidized by the ONMT whereas RAM is not '. A source close to the CEO of the RAM, Driss Benhima, says, 'the opening of this line by a French company is subsidized by a Moroccan public body worsens the deficit of RAM on this route.'
After going through a restructuring programme imposed by the State, at a time when the airline was in financial difficulties, RAM was able to improve its finances and by 2013 had record his first post-restructuring profits. In late June, the company reported net profit of 168 million DH in 2013, and an operating profit of 789 million dirhams, an increase of 10% and a total turnover of 13.38 billion dirhams, including 12.42 million dirhams in the transport business. RAM exceeded 'the goals of the program contract signed with the government in September 2011,' said a company statement. About 6 million passengers were transported in 2013, down 3% compared to 2012.
"Essaouira has staked everything on tourism. Large public and private investments are at stake, not to mention the social aspect that is linked to the economic. Tens of thousands of direct and indirect jobs are related to tourism" ~ Redwane Khane, President of the Essaouira-Mogador Association
At Saturday's meeting in Essaouira Mr Zouiten reassured tourism operators that RAM's closure of the route was a management decision and had nothing to do with the attractiveness of the city itself.
In the meantime the good news was that Transavia will launch two additional flights between Paris and Essaouira from 1 November 2014 and in April 2015 the London-Essaouira sector will be serviced by Easyjet with 2 weekly flights.
Other projects are under consideration, including a direct bus connection between the airport of Marrakech and Essaouira so that passengers could land in Marrakech as a stopover before going on to Essaouira. Negotiations with RAM are also underway for the creation of a flight between Casablanca and Essaouira. There are also discussions with ONDA (National Airports Authority) for exemption from some airport taxes.