A tough ride: tourist numbers may fall away

The guests at Riad Adriana, a small hotel in a converted traditional courtyard house in Marrakesh, take their breakfast on a sunny roof terrace full of flowers and sleep in beds strewn with rose petals.

The hotel has only seven rooms, but Malanie Sueur, the owner, says it was a struggle to fill them over the summer following June’s terror attack that killed 38 tourists on a beach in Sousse in Tunisia — a country with which Morocco does not even share a border.

The latest killings in Paris, 2,500km away and an important source of tourists for Morocco, are likely only to make life more difficult. “We had to halve our prices in July and August, but since then it has been good,” Ms Sueur said, before the Paris attacks.

“I don’t know, though, if the problem is over. People are still afraid. I had a French guest with a pregnant wife tell me that when they said they were coming to Morocco, his family said, ‘Don’t go — they have attacks there’. But we don’t have attacks here.”

Except for one attack against tourists in 2011 in Marrakesh — the kingdom’s biggest tourism centre — Morocco has been calm for the past decade.

Nonetheless, the importance of tourism, which last year accounted for 12 per cent of GDP, means the economy has been affected by the resurgence of violence in the surrounding region since the emergence of Isis, the Islamist group, in 2014.

Officials and tourism operators say growth in the sector has been affected by a perception of threat and tourist numbers and receipts are weakening.

“Since mid-2014 with the appearance of Isis and then with the two attacks in Tunisia, and with the Charlie Hebdo attack in France [in January], we have seen a dwindling of the number of tourists,” said Lahcen Haddad, the tourism minister, speaking before the November 13 assault on Paris.

“It is not highly significant in the overall picture, but very important for the French market, where we had a drop starting in mid-2014 — and it is still happening.”

Tourism had its best year in 2013 when it increased 7.2 per cent, he says. The pace of growth initially continued in 2014, when the increase in the first eight months was 8 per cent, but the appearance of Isis in Syria and Iraq cast a shadow over the entire region and the year ended with a mere 2 per cent increase in tourism over 2013.

This year, says Mr Haddad, there has been a 15 per cent fall in the number of tourists from France, Morocco’s biggest travel market, which provided almost 1.8m visitors last year. French tourists coming through travel agencies have declined 30 per cent.

Overall, however, Mr Haddad expects visitor numbers to decline by only 1 or 2 per cent this year.

He points out that travellers from Britain and Germany are increasing, although these countries represent smaller markets than France and Spain.

“We don’t have hotels closing, but we don’t have 80 per cent occupancy,” he says. “Occupancy is around 45 per cent in general, though different places suffer more than others. Marrakesh is not suffering much now.”

Last year 10.3m tourists visited Morocco and brought in $6bn, according to ministry figures. But Othman Cherif Alami, head of Atlas Voyages, Morocco’s largest travel agency, says tourists in Morocco are now spending 10-15 per cent less than in previous years.

“We had to make the country attractive so we have had to drop rates,” he says. “Hotel management reduced prices by 7 per cent net. After Sousse, French agencies have been reducing their business to the region because clients are afraid.” Many tourists travel independently, without a travel company, and use Airbnb to book rooms.

“The economic crisis in Europe is the reason why they come on low-cost airlines and make arrangements with local taxi drivers, and don’t come through agencies like us,” he says.

Tourist numbers in Morocco have more than doubled since 2000, when only 4.2m people visited the country. The industry was boosted by an open-skies agreement with Europe in 2005 that removed limits on EU flights to Moroccan airports.

The increase in arrivals was also helped by a government drive to expand beach tourism through the development of resorts on both the Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines. Not all resorts were developed as planned after growth in Europe slowed following the financial crisis of 2008.

Mr Alami says a target to double tourist numbers again by 2020 will take longer to reach given conditions in the region, although this remains “a good marketing vision”.

In Marrakesh, Aly Horma, UK honorary consul, confirms that the city has been receiving increasing numbers of British tourists, arriving on 12 flights a week.

Mr Horma, who is also an entrepreneur and president of the Marrakesh Grand Prix motor-racing event, says “the jet-set crowd has been coming more frequently”, with the opening of several five-star properties recently.

“Famous people”, he adds, are also becoming resident in Morocco for tax purposes, “to escape Europe”.

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