The 16th-century port city of Essaouira on Morocco’s Atlantic coast has long been a draw for film-makers. In particular, the sea fort founded in the 18th century by the Portuguese has frequently served as a historic backcloth, whether for Orson Welles’s 1952 film Othello or the television series Game Of Thrones.
The historic charm of the Unesco world heritage listed city is evident in every twist in the maze of car-free streets that make up the medina, or old town. Crumbling facades and ornate doors open to reveal ancient riads – three-storey houses built around open courtyards featuring trickling fountains and ceramic-tiled mosaics.
Musicians Cat Stephens and Jimi Hendrix visited the city in the 1960s, inspiring waves of hippies to follow in their footsteps in the 1970s. Essaouira, with its relaxed, slightly faded air, has not entirely shaken off the tourist dropouts. But these days the “dropouts” are more likely to be European holiday-home buyers, golfing retirees, or those looking to downsize their lives by running a maison d’hôte from a restored riad.
Overseas buyers buoyed by the European property boom were snapping up riads so fast before the 2008 global financial crisis that prices became overheated, up 35 to 40 per cent over the preceding five years. Prices have fallen about 30 per cent since that high-water mark, with sales volumes about half what they were at the height of the market.
According to the Bank Al-Maghrib, the country’s central bank, Moroccan residential property prices rose just 0.2 per cent last year, while prices in tourist destinations such as Agadir and Marrakesh, both about 170km from Essaouira, fell 1.6 per cent and 1.7 per cent respectively.
“Recently, prices in Essaouira have stabilised,” said Jack Oswald of local property agents Karimo. “But they’re much lower than they used to be.” Interest from foreign buyers, particularly in riads within Essaouira’s medina, is still there, according to Soraya Fahim, residential manager of property consultancy CBRE’s Moroccan office. But buyers have much less to spend. “There’s a wait-and-see attitude right now,” she says. “They’re looking for the best possible deal, so they’re holding back. That makes the market a little stagnant.”
Evidence of the hangover can be found in the stony fields around Essaouira. Skeletons of incomplete Moorish-style, traditional stone villas abound after developers folded or pulled the plug when prices plummeted. In the city, developers have stocks of unsold apartments.
In contrast, a development of three- to five-bedroom villas with pools recently completed adjacent to the Sofitel Essaouira Mogador golf and spa resort sold out at prices ranging from €500,000 to €1.3m.
The Moroccan developer is selling a second phase off-plan but one completed three-bedroom villa of 320 sq metres with views along the beach to the old city, is being marketed by local agents Essaouira Select for €647,280. Owners receive preferential rates at the golf course and spa.
Unsurprisingly for a city that was a French protectorate until 1956 and where French is the widely-spoken second language after Arabic, most of Essaouira’s overseas buyers come from France. But British, Spanish, Belgians, Swiss and, more recently, Italians also feature strongly.
French buyers, in particular, are drawn to medium-sized riads, often with a view to converting them into guest houses. The city is popular with tourists thanks to its almost year-round sunshine and more moderate climate, compared with Marrakesh, where the temperature regularly hits 45C during the summer.
One example is a renovated riad in the heart of the medina, which has ten bedrooms and would make an ideal maison d’hôte. The restoration includes a tasteful European-style façade with two floors and a roof terrace. The property measures 600 sq metres and on sale through Essaouira Select for €584,350.
Buyers seeking a more rural setting may be interested in a 150 sq metre house built in traditional stone with five bedrooms and a pool set in the countryside just south of Essaouira. It is on sale with Karimo for €195,000.
For tourists and overseas buyers, the growing number of flights to Marrakesh from all over Europe is a big attraction. Improved infrastructure, including a motorway and new road to Essaouira, has cut the journey time between the two cities to just over two hours. In addition, Essaouira airport has recently reopened, with regular flights to Paris, Marseille and Brussels, while a Ryanair service to London is also under discussion.
Part of the city’s multicultural charm is thanks to the make-up of its population, which includes north African Berbers and traces of the Moroccan Jewish community that Sultan Mohammed invited to Essaouira in the 18th century to develop trade with Europe. It is also reflected in the colonnaded marketplace and triumphal archways designed by French architect Théodore Cornut in the 1760s.
The reigning King Mohammed VI has done much to internationalise Morocco, while also managing the social tensions that erupted in neighbouring countries and led to the Arab uprisings. “Morocco had none of the problems associated with the Arab spring,” says Philip Arnott, of Moroccan Properties Immobilier, an associate of Savills. “Because of that it’s a good place to buy property and a safe haven for investment.”
● Average daytime temperatures vary between 18C and 22C year-round
● Essaouira has a population of about 70,000
● Up to 60 per cent of property buyers are French
● Overseas buyers can obtain mortgages if they put down 30 per cent of the purchase price
● Transaction costs in Morocco range from 11.6 per cent to 12.6 per cent of the purchase price
● Buyers pay most of the transaction costs but sellers must pay 50 per cent of agents’ fees
What you can buy for . . .
€100,000 A three-bedroom, three-floored renovated riad in the medina, with a sunny terrace
€500,000 A 600 sq metre, four-bedroom villa with pool and garden 13km outside Essaouira
€1m A 300 sq metre villa in Essaouira new town with six bedrooms, four bathrooms and a traditional hammam, within walking distance of the beach