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Morocco is, once again, a hot destination. Unlike the 1960s, however, when the country was a favoured haunt of the hippie sub-culture, it has joined the tourist mainstream. What is more, the increasing familiarity of western Europeans with the north African nation’s physical beauty, rich culture and outstanding value for money - the consequence partly of a growing number of low-cost airlines flying to the country - is fuelling an interest in buying property there.
It is scarcely surprising that Europeans should feel easily at home in Morocco. Just 14km away from Europe at its closest point, it is cut off from the bulk of its own continent by the Atlas mountains and the world’s biggest desert. Half a century after it regained full independence from France, French is still widely spoken, at least in the main cities.
Many aspects of the typical tourist experience in Morocco will also seem familiar to westerners. The long line of horses at the entrance to Marrakesh’s famous Djemaa el Fna square - pulling carriages painted in the green of a British steam engine - could have been taken straight from Central Park, although in the ”Pink City”, the pungent smell of their dung is tempered by the ubiquitous fresh mint used for tea and cooking. The open-topped tour buses could have been in London. Even the gloriously unwieldy storks’ nests on many a minaret might serve to remind mainland Europeans of similar feats of avian engineering on town halls and churches at home.
Of course, Morocco - a Muslim country with gross domestic product per head in 2005 of less than $1,800 - is not Europe, a simple fact apt to be rammed home whenever one turns a street-corner: there are the djellabas, the traditional robe worn by both men and women; the donkeys and mules on the roads; the handcarts that may be piled high with just about anything from mint to plastic coat-hangers or skeins of blue and orange wool.
But Morocco offers mainstream tourists a frisson of the African experience without much of the hassle habitually associated with travelling to some developing nations: transport and accommodation in the main centres compare well with western standards; service is better; with a few basic precautions, the risk of an upset tummy from eating dodgy food is small; and no inoculations are required. While visitors are inevitably subject to frequent approaches from locals offering all manner of goods and services, these exchanges are usually good-humoured and sometimes useful, if only to gain an insight into a local’s knowledge.
There is, however, real poverty and you do catch regular glimpses of lives blighted by economic hardship, chronic sickness or physical deformity. And the country is not immune from terrorism. This was demonstrated most graphically by the co-ordinated suicide attacks unleashed in Casablanca, Morocco’s commercial centre, in May 2003. What is more, concerns have again been mounting about the threat of Islamic radicals throughout north Africa, with incidents this year in Algeria and Tunisia, and six Moroccan men blowing themselves up in March and April, again in Casablanca.
Last month, a senior interior ministry official voiced fears to the Financial Times that militants linked to al-Qaeda were planning new attacks in Morocco. A recent Economist Intelligence Unit report suggested that there remained a ”moderate risk of further attacks by Islamist extremists”.
For now though, in a country still heavily reliant on the volatile agriculture sector and whose natural resource-based industries are dominated by phosphates, the drive to expand tourism is powering ahead. Construction is apparent everywhere from the moment one arrives at Marrakesh airport. A new railway station is also taking shape in what remains perhaps the country’s best-known tourist destination, while the renowned La Mamounia Hotel, surrounded by 12th-century ramparts, is closed for a ”major renovation”.
Since 2001, tourism has been designated a national economic priority, with the objective of increasing the number of visitors to 10m a year by 2010. Hotel capacity is to be lifted to 230,000 beds and six new seaside resorts are set to be created.
The country might have received a considerable boost to its hopes of reaching its goal had it won the right to stage the 2010 World Cup. However, it lost out to sentimental favourite South Africa in the 2004 vote. Nevertheless, visitor numbers are bounding ahead, with arrivals up 12 per cent to more than 6.5m in 2006 and associated revenue increasing nearly 30 per cent to Dh53bn, about £3.2bn.
With low-cost flights from Europe now commonplace, one challenge leading up to the end of the decade may be to exploit what remains an ambitious target for visitor arrivals without drifting too far downmarket. If the early indicators are anything to go by, the signs are encouraging.
Ali Kasmi, director of the Morocco Tourist Office in London, says that research has shown that a large majority of people using low-cost airlines to get to Morocco are staying in three- or four-star hotels and eating in high-end restaurants. ”Maybe they are using the money saved on their airfare to enjoy a slightly higher quality of life in Morocco,” he suggests.
Another test will be whether the country can spread enough of the income derived from foreign visitors among the general population to head off any danger of a two-tier economy developing. According to an estate agent in Essaouira, a coastal town about three hours’ drive from Marrakesh, 90 per cent of his company’s sales have been to foreign buyers. This has raised concerns that this may cause house prices to rise beyond the reach of most locals.
As the charms of the country become better-known, particularly in the English-speaking world, and as the proliferation of flights makes access easier, the range and location of properties in which prospective foreign buyers are showing an interest has started to broaden.
Marrakesh, the long-time focal point, is still very popular. At the same time, however, buyers are venturing further afield to new, modern resorts on the edge of the city, where villas are sometimes large enough to have gardens and swimming pools. They may also have the snow-capped Atlas mountains, where there are skiing facilities, as their backdrop, and easy access to a golf course. Meanwhile, buyers are also picking up properties along the Morocco coastline, in towns including Tangiers, Rabat and Agadir, and further inland in the heart of ancient centres such as Fez.
Local experts expect this trend to continue. Mohamed Zkhiri, British honorary consul in Marrakesh and owner of the Yacout restaurant, which has built a reputation as one of the country’s best by serving traditional Moroccan feasts with great theatricality in an ornate palatial setting, draws an analogy with a newly dammed reservoir. Once one part of the lake starts to fill up, the water begins to flow to another part. ”As long as the water keeps coming” he says, ”eventually the whole area will be full.”
Mr Zkhiri also makes the point that English is becoming more widely spoken in Morocco, making potential language problems less of a barrier for prospective Anglophone investors.
Though some now expect property prices, which have risen rapidly in recent years, to start levelling off, the popularity of magazines such as Logic-Immo Maroc, a French-language publication full of property listings, suggests that the locals are as concerned about property as their European counterparts.