For foreign property buyers in Morocco, the essence of the country’s appeal has traditionally been in the shabby chic and exotic edginess of the ancient medinas in Marrakech or, for the more intrepid, Fez. Some with business interests in the country have invested in the capital, Rabat, or in Casablanca, and small numbers have bought holiday homes in the country’s first – and still its main – coastal resort, Agadir.
But with a year to go until the target date that King Mohammed VI has set to turn his country into a first-class tourist destination, Morocco’s property market now offers many more options.
As part of his $9bn Vision 2010 development plan, which aims to boost annual visitor numbers to 10m and create 600,000 jobs, pockets of previously untouched Mediterranean and Atlantic coastline are being transformed into European-style resorts with high-class hotels, marinas and professionally designed golf courses. At the same time, househunters already familiar with the country are branching out in a different direction, eschewing established destinations in favour of smaller towns, buying traditional riads and living among the locals.
The first category of housing, dubbed Plan Azur, involves six flagship projects due for completion by 2015. They include the casino-led Mazagan Resort, south of Casablanca near the town of El Jadida; Mediterranea Saïdia, with three golf courses, a 750-berth marina, six hotels and hundreds of apartments and villas on 1,730 acres near the Algerian border; the lower density Port Lixus, with apartments and nine large detached villas facing a 6km beach in Larache, south of Tangier; Mogador on 1,500 acres in Essaouira, billed as a weekend getaway from Marrakech; the spa- and golf-centred Taghazout, near the small Berber fishing and surfing village of the same name north of Agadir; and Plage Blanche, including flats, houses and a souk in Guelmim, south of Agadir.
The aim is to offer access to an “authentic” Moroccan experience with the high-quality facilities that buyers expect from southern Spain or Portugal’s Algarve – at a fraction of the price. “Many of today’s buyers feel too exposed buying a riad in a traditional medina and they want Morocco but not Marrakech, which they feel is becoming saturated,” says Julian Cunningham of estate agency Knight Frank, which is marketing the $230m Mazagan project for developer Kerzner Group. “Buyers want the facilities of a five-star resort [near] traditional towns that are much more the ‘real Morocco’, such as El Jadida.”
At Mazagan, average prices are Dh25,500 (£2068) per sq metre, with three-bedroom villas costing Dh9m (£729,904), which is “good value for Morocco, let alone the rest of the Mediterranean,” he adds. “Equivalent projects in Marrakech are selling for up to Dh46,700 per sq metre.”
The developments are a significant departure for the country because, prior to the adoption of Vision 2010, “nothing new had been built on the coast since the early 1960s – when Agadir had to be rebuilt after the earthquake – because no one wanted to sell valuable coastal land for development,” says Jean-Robert Reznik, president of the travel agency association Alliance T and an adviser to the government and royal family for the past 40 years.
Eventually, however, “the current king’s father and grandfather both realised that the future of Morocco depended on it being open to both Europe and the US. That meant attracting foreign investors, which meant developing tourist resorts in certain areas, along with new roads and better airports, to give Morocco credibility internationally.”
It is a difficult time to be embarking on such grand projects. But developers such as Sean Cusack at Property Logic, which is building 1,400 leaseback residences, with two-bedroom apartments priced from Dh2.2m, at Saïdia’s Le Jardin de Fleur development, remain confident. “Morocco’s main worry is that tourism will be hit by the economic climate because becoming a world-class tourism destination is the key aim behind the king’s plan. But they have learnt a lot from Spain and are tough in their planning policies to avoid over-development,” he says. “We have sold 78 per cent of our stock, which is over 1,000 units at Le Jardin de Fleur and the resort will be up and running by 2010. There is a lot of wealth in Morocco and about 70 per cent of our buyers come from the domestic market. Saïdia will also attract buyers from Algeria – particularly when the border opens within the next couple of years – and Libya. These neighbouring countries have a lot of wealth but don’t have their own resorts or beaches.”
Reznick agrees. “Everyone will suffer the crisis but, unlike Dubai, which has seen the highest highs and will soon see the lowest lows because there is no real domestic market to prop it up, emerging markets with a local population who can afford to buy property will suffer far less. I see two years ahead of us of suffering, then Morocco will be fine.”
The second option for buyers keen to move beyond Marrakech, Fez, Rabat, Casablanca and Agadir is to investigate the more remote towns of “old Morocco”.
John Wilkinson, 66, a Briton who also has a house in Toulouse, France, bought a property in Chefchaouen, in the Rif Mountains, in 2001 for £7,000. “There were no estate agents back then so I sat in a café and told the world and its wife what I was looking for,” he says. He was particularly drawn to the town’s medina, with its pastel-blue-painted houses and streets. “I got a 60 sq metre ground floor with rickety steps to a terrace of the same size above, with two bedrooms and electricity – if you can call three lightbulbs that,” he says. “A family of seven were living there before me.”
He invested another £7,000 – “I forgot to haggle the price, to the builder’s amazement” – on renovating the house into a cosy retreat with a log fire and piano and now lives there for five months a year, one of only five British residents in Chefchaouen. “With haircuts for Dh13, three-course meals for Dh65 and labour for next to nothing, not to spend as much time here as possible would cost me dear,” he says. “And I love the sounds – the wail of the muezzin five times a day, the kids shrieking below, the clank of gas bottles being unloaded from donkey backs. You live cheek by jowl with your neighbours in the medina, a place that was very different when I first saw it in the 1970s – crumbling, no running water, no drains or electricity. Now, little by little, it is beginning to be cared for in the way it deserves.”
Michael Richardson, 36, a former London restaurateur, has also been pioneering in his choice of a Moroccan retreat, becoming the first foreigner to buy a property in Moulay Idriss, a small town and place of pilgrimage near Meknes. His house, set on a hillside overlooking the town’s mosque, cost Dh187,000, while a five-room guesthouse he plans to turn into the first of a chain of budget boutique hotels cost Dh430,000.
“Guidebooks have wrongly reported that Moulay, one of Morocco’s holiest towns, is off-limits to non-Muslims after 4pm, which has kept people away [but] I’ve been welcomed by everyone I have met and buying property here was far easier than in Fez,” he says. “Moulay is a laid-back agricultural community, which becomes a musical and religious hub in summer, and it’s in an amazingly beautiful location, overlooking the Roman remains of Volubilis.”
Although he and Wilkinson prefer a more traditional experience to the ones on offer at the manufactured Plan Azur resorts, they acknowledge that the investment behind Vision 2010 will benefit all parts of Morocco. The king’s “open skies” policy has, for example, led to a big increase in European flights and the upgrading of regional airports. The railway network has been improved. And, although many roads, including the Fez-Marrakech motorway, are still single-lane, there are fast, underused routes running up the west coast from Casablanca to Tangier and on to Fez via Rabat. And next year should mark the opening of a new Marrakech-Agadir highway.
As long-time resident Reznick says: “The country had its natural assets – history, sea, desert, mountains and the richness of its population, who are among the most welcoming in the world – but it needed new infrastructure.”
Mazagan Resort, tel: +44 (0)2078611097, www.knightfrank.com
Mediterranea-Saïdia, tel: +34 952799579, www.property-logic.com
Port Lixus, tel: +212 22399986, www.port-lixus.com
Mogador Essaouira, tel: +32 (0)61531111, www.thomas-piron.be
Get alerts on House & Home when a new story is published