The Berber village of Imlil lies where the road stops and the High Atlas mountains begin, at the foot of Jebel Toubkal, at 4,165m, the highest peak in north Africa. It is a prime location, and, over the past decade, the village has seen a trickle of visitors develop into a stream.
Many travel the 60km from Marrakesh to trek in the mountains or to climb Jebel Toubkal. But much of the growth in tourism has been driven by the reconstruction of the Kasbah du Toubkal, a stunning mountain retreat owned by a British company and run by local Berbers, that dominates the village, physically and economically.
Like most visitors, I came specifically to stay at the kasbah. Once checked in at the office in the village, I waited for a porter with his mule to come and collect my luggage, and then set off on foot. The steep, 15-minute walk through apple orchards and groves of walnut trees was arduous enough to make it feel like the last stages of a pilgrimage - even though I had come most of the way from Marrakesh in a Mercedes taxi.
The kasbah has a range of rooms to suit different budgets - from luxury villas to basic dormitories - and activities to suit all temperaments and abilities. You can loll around on over 300 square metres of roof terraces, drinking tea, playing chess, gazing at spellbinding panoramas of the mountains above and the working village below and just listening to the sounds of the valley. Or you can take a Berber-guided trek for as little as an afternoon or as long as a couple of days, and glimpse an insight in to the day-to-day lives of the Ait Mizane community that inhabits the valleys.
For the 5,000 or so Berber residents of Imlil, the kasbah has accelerated the pace of development. Unlike many other villages in the region, Imlil now has a school, a rubbish collection system, an ambulance, a hammam - the first communal baths in the valley - and sustains a string of small businesses set up to supply the kasbah with food and mules.
The benefits have not trickled down by chance. Behind the making of the kasbah is the story of a British Moroccophile, Mike McHugo, who first came to climb Jebel Toubkal in 1990 and discovered the derelict summer home of a feudal lord and, with his brother, decided to buy it. McHugo, who runs Discover, a UK travel company that focuses on educational and responsible tourism, recognised the business potential of the location and believed that by working in partnership with the villagers, he could develop an innovative and sustainable destination to generate long-term benefits for the community, as well as a profit for his company. It took five years to overcome the bureaucracy, and another year to reconstruct the kasbah, using modern local materials and traditional rendering techniques. By 1995, the Kasbah du Toubkal was ready for business.
So, how is it unique? First of all, the kasbah is managed by the local Berber community, rather than by professional hoteliers. There are currently 32 locals employed in permanent jobs, who have learnt their trade on the job. The kasbah is a ”hospitality centre” rather than a hotel, based on the idea that visitors and locals can mutually benefit from the venture, as long as the visitor ”does no harm” and respects the cultural and social differences between host and guest. A clear ”Code of Conduct” gives guidance, if you need any, on some of the more practical issues, such as removing shoes in communal areas, not getting drunk, and how to dress according to local custom rather than your own.
Whether or not this changes the experience for visitors depends partly on who they are. ”All the tourists that come here have specifically and pro-actively chosen something different,” explains McHugo. ”You’re getting sufficiently close to the Berber experience, without going through the hardship. Basically, you have comfortable modern plumbing while trying to get a glimpse into the Berber culture.”
More important than the idea of hospitality, perhaps, is the system introduced in 2000, whereby all guests pay a 5 per cent levy on their bill. This money goes directly to the Imlil Village Association, which decides how to spend it. It has had to make some interesting decisions. Even before it was open to the public, Martin Scorsese asked for permission to film parts of his Tibetan epic Kundun at the kasbah, using the backdrop of the Atlas mountains to double for the Himalayas. After discussion, the village agreed to the filming as long as all the jobs and services created were given to locals.
With the income from Kundun, the village built their hammam. McHugo says it took a while for the villagers to believe that they actually owned the facility. But this was also the point when they began to trust the motivations of the kasbah’s owners - and to believe that they had a stake in its future.
Last year, about 8,000 people, many of whom were repeat visitors, stayed at the kasbah. The levy generated about E35,000, 14 per cent of the kasbah’s total profits, and they will use the money to finish building a girls’ boarding house so that girls can leave home to attend high school in the village of Asni 17km away. They also plan to set up a business bottling walnut oil and to open a trout farm near the village.
McHugo says the kasbah has received various prizes for its sustainable policies because of its solid credentials in dealing with sewage, energy and locally-sourced food. But he feels its real strength is its support for the local economy. Today, the hotel has 17 rooms including a solar-powered trekking lodge a day’s walk away, a riad on the edge of Imlil, and a private villa in the grounds of the kasbah.
Every one involved in the venture now agrees that there will be no more expansion, and McHugo adds: ”The biggest challenge is to create a sort of plateau shape in the number of tourists that come - and not follow the usual mountain-shaped peaks and troughs of tourism.”
McHugo would love to see the government insist that the wider hotel industry adopt the 5 per cent rule. ”If it could become an obligation that hotels levy 5 per cent and set up village associations to decide how to spend it,” he says, ”it could really make a difference throughout Morocco.”
In the meantime, this down-to-earth retreat in the extraordinary setting of the High Atlas mountains continues to set a benchmark for other tourism initiatives in remote areas.