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Monday, 18 March, 2002, 10:00 GMT
Morocco seeks tourism revival
Tourism chiefs in the Moroccan city of Fez are seeking to win back lost trade from holidaymakers who were put off travelling by the events of 11 September.
For thousands of workers, including taxi drivers, hotel staff and local craftsman, it is vital that North Americans and Europeans overcome any doubts about travel.
"We Fassis all need tourism," says Mohammed Benouna, a shop owner in Fez, north-eastern Morocco.
"Tourism and agriculture are the two most important things in Morocco," he points out.
His sales to fellow Moroccans have been slow for a year or so now as people hit by the country's drought have cut their spending on weddings and other celebrations.
The sharp fall-off in foreign visitors after the 11 September attacks was a further blow the city could have done without.
Ranged in display cases around him are slippers in a rainbow of colours and belts for women's traditional evening gowns.
Koranic texts in gold thread on black velvet are the work of women outworkers, explains Benouna.
He is hoping that returning Moroccan emigres based in France will provide some welcome business this summer.
A walk through Fez's medina can be a mind-boggling experience for those who may have only visited the Disneyland version of a souk, or Arab market.
This is the real thing, a buzzing community with ways of doing business and making products that have changed little over hundreds of years.
In the medieval 'medersas' (student halls) at the heart of the old city, guides emphasize a strand of peaceful co-existence running through Fez's complex and chequered history.
In the early ninth century, it welcomed Muslim refugees from southern Spain and Tunisia.
In the 15th century the city's diversity was further boosted by the arrival of Jews from Granada.
Cross-cultural understanding will again be promoted by this summer's World Sacred Music festival, an annual event here featuring music ranging from ritual chants by Morocco's Sufi brotherhoods to gospel music from the southern United States.
Official figures show the number of visits by foreigners to Fez fell sharply in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September attacks.
The downturn was felt by other destinations in Morocco and beyond, as individual holidaymakers, tour operators and conference organisers scrambled to cancel bookings.
November was the most difficult month, with 43% fewer visitors to Fez than a year earlier. In January, visitors were still almost 25% down, with the free-spending US tourists particularly missed.
Underlying the fall-off has been nervousness about flying, weaker consumer spending, and - much as ordinary Fassis are reluctant to recognise it - unease about holidaying in an Arab country.
Following up on a suggestion from a group of visiting US travel agents, leading Fez figures are behind a delegation that will travel to New York in April to reassure Americans that they can continue to expect a warm welcome in Morocco.
The group of Moroccan business people, intellectuals and lawmakers will reiterate an official message that Islam should not be equated with 'terrorism'.
In Fez's modern downtown, determinedly upbeat travel operators say that in the medium term the city can offer serious competition to Marrakesh in southern Morocco as a conference and holiday destination.
There is talk of reaching within a couple of years the critical threshold of 8,000 beds that would induce tour operators to charter flights direct to the city's airport and national carrier Royal Air Maroc to open up direct international routes in addition to its existing Fez-Paris link.
Until that happens, Fez will continue to depend on the upscale tourism which has been a Moroccan speciality since the 1970s.
In the restored palaces and mansions that once housed the city's traditional elites - long displaced to Casablanca and beyond - a luxurious holiday backdrop does not come cheap.
Rates range from $1,500 (£1056) a night for a suite in the Palais Jamai, run by French hotel group Accor, to between $40 and $200 in a roomy medina mansion.
The Moroccan and French hoteliers who run the mansions freely admit to having suffered during the current downturn, some having had to reschedule repayments of hefty borrowings for renovations.
For New York travel agent Joel Zack, whose company brings some 600 US visitors to Morocco, visitors fascinated by cultural contrast will continue to be drawn to Fez but the New Year marked a psychological turning-point for Americans dubious about foreign travel, he believes.
An upturn cannot come soon enough for 26-year-old taxi-driver Abdelghani Boutayyib, who still lives with his parents along with three younger siblings.
He reckons that scarcity of foreign visitors has halved his daily income from about 100 dirhams a day ($8.50; £6) to 50 to 60 dirhams.
Like many other Fassis, he is waiting out the downturn with cheerful stoicism.
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