Looking at the latest statistics, it is not clear why Marrakech needs any more hotels. As of 2012, it had more boutique hotels than any other city – more than 400, if you count riads – as well as 32 five-star hotels. Average occupancy rates are low, and water shortages mean that many hotels have to sink their own boreholes.
Yet, in spite of this, the hotel building spree is far from over. During the next two years, hotels by Banyan Tree, Baglioni, Mandarin Oriental, Beachcomber, Park Hyatt and Grace Hotels will all open outposts in the 12th-century city. Because of the stiff competition, the levels of luxury being offered are increasingly excessive. When Winston Churchill came here in the 1930s, there was only one hotel, La Mamounia, considered comfortable enough to accommodate a visiting statesman. Today, even after the hotel’s $176m refurbishment by Parisian designer Jacques Garcia, the hotel is by no means the city’s most opulent. New additions include the Royal Mansour, owned by the King of Morocco, with its cathedral-like hammam lined in the palest marble; the Palais Namaskar, with 28 swimming pools in its 12-acre grounds; and the Selman, with its air-conditioned stables housing eight thoroughbred Arabian horses.
It was precisely this explosion of extravagance that inspired Redha Moali to open his own hotel, the Fellah (meaning “Peasant”), last month. Until 2008, Moali was the deputy director-general of Exan-BNP Paribas bank in Geneva. Born in Paris of Algerian descent, he had frequently visited Marrakech with his Moroccan wife, and felt that the city was missing a hotel that linked guests with the country’s culture.
“I could have all the comforts I wanted, whether that was Russian caviar or American-style nightclubs,” he explained, sitting in his 11 acres of grounds, landscaped with indigenous palms, herbs, grasses and cactuses. “But what if I wanted to tap into Moroccan art? Its poetry? Its food? Its films? There was nowhere that introduced me to those.”
Which is why the unique selling point of Moali’s hotel is neither marble nor thoroughbreds but its on-site cultural centre, Dar Al-Ma’mûn, housing a cinema, a library and an artists’ studio.
As Moali points out, while Morocco is known for its film festival and its 10-year-old art biennale (the oldest continual arts festival in the Maghreb), it has very few cultural institutions. Until the David Chipperfield-designed photography and art gallery opens in 2016, Marrakech will have just two state museums. “So there is definitely a need to give local people access to their culture – and to books,” Moali says. “Before they visited our library at Dar Al-Ma’mûn, many people had never been into one before.”
Dar Al-Ma’mûn is based in one of 10 villas dotted about the rural property, each of which has between five and nine bedrooms, a living area and a veranda. As well as reaching out to the local population, Dar Al-Ma’mûn is designed to let hotel guests learn about local culture, participate in debates and film evenings, talk to the poetry specialist, learn about Arab literature or ask for a specific arts package to be created.
The hotel’s style is unique: a mix of simple architecture, contemporary art and traditional crafts. Beyond the goat pen, and chicken and rabbit runs at the restaurant door (a little too close to the kitchen, perhaps, even for those who agonise about food miles), a colourful installation of kitsch toys and religious paraphernalia rises from floor to ceiling.
Moroccan-tiled tables are surrounded by hip metal dining chairs and Fellah-designed rattan loungers. There’s a herb shop piled high with bright powders and liquids, like a giant pop art installation, and an outdoor gym upholstered in bright African fabrics. Aesthetically, it’s fresh and imaginative.
The catch, as in many new hotels keen to employ and empower local villagers, is that it doesn’t quite deliver what it promises. While the mixed grills, pastillas and tagines were fresh, tasty and made of locally sourced ingredients, they were hardly “Moroccan with a contemporary twist”. Drinks took anything up to 45 minutes to arrive, if they arrived at all. The rooms contained most of the basics (lots of space, characterful furniture and comfortable beds) but not always others (like hot water every day, plugs in basins, windows that opened).
But then, the hotel had only just opened. Moali knows that he has to rectify the opening glitches, and has just employed a new French hotel manager to do so. Meanwhile, the art community in Marrakech we met over dinner and on tours to their galleries couldn’t have been more excited about the project.
What’s more, local people are using the cultural centre: about 25 children a day borrow books and 20 women from the local village have been taught how to read and write. Unesco is working with Dar Al-Ma’mûn, offering artists’ bursaries through its Aschberg programme, and in June a Moroccan family offered Moali the use of the Mokri palace in Fez to create a larger cultural centre.
Vanessa Branson, sister of Sir Richard and founder of the Marrakech Biennale, is clearly supportive and understands the trials of starting something new in the city. “When I launched the biennale, it was pretty chaotic,” she says, over a drink at her riad, El Fenn. “Now, 10 years later, it is run by proper local curators, attracts about 60,000 people and is a major cross-cultural event that bridges countries, arts, religions.
“To get things polished in Morocco takes time. But the magic of seeing local people getting involved in something that’s embedded in their city and celebrates their culture is worth the effort.”
Lisa Grainger was a guest of the Fellah Hotel (www.fellah-hotel.com); doubles from €170