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Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - The Welcome Couldnt Be Warmer

The Observer, 14 October 2001

The welcome couldn't be warmer

One day Morocco was top of the tourism charts. The next it wasn't. Liz Bird went last week to find out if fears of travelling in a Muslim country are well founded

The Moroccan teenager on the Royal Air Maroc flight to Marrakesh was wearing an I Love New York T-shirt and an NY cap as she wandered up and down the aisle with a British toddler, giving his parents a welcome break from their energetic son.

An 18-month-old Moroccan boy stood on my fold-down table as we played high fives while his parents tucked into their meal.

I was on my way to Marrakesh to find out what it's like for a Westerner to visit a Muslim country following the 11 September attacks in the United States. If my flight was anything to go by, relations between ordinary travellers looked pretty good. But I was flying with many Moroccans who had made their home in Britain and I wondered what the average follower of Islam in the security of their own country would be feeling.

Fouad Haddad, a businessman from Casablanca, said: 'Morocco is a moderate country. It does not have any time for people like Osama bin Laden. He is an extremist. Islam teaches non-violence.'

My guide in Marrakesh, Ahmed Ajni, also condemned the terrorist attacks but voiced concern about the humanitarian impact of bombing Afghanistan. 'I am worried about the civilian casualties and the starvation and disease,' he said.

But I would be equally upset if the people affected were Jewish or Christian. It is nothing to do with my religion.

Moroccans were keen to point out that they have lived in harmony with non-Muslims for more than a century. Charles Bittoun, leader of the Jewish community in Marrakesh, says he has never encountered hostility from Muslims. Initially his wife, who came from Israel, was concerned about how she would be treated. 'She didn't go out for three weeks because she was worried about being attacked,' he said.

Like other Moroccans, restaurateur Bittoun is worried about the impact of the conflict on the country's tourist industry. 'It will hit us economically. During the Gulf war things got really bad.'

The war on terrorism couldn't have come at a worse time for a country that was just beginning to shoot up the tourist charts. Over the past few years the British have been buying up riyads , or urban houses, in the Medina or in the ultra-chic La Palmeraie, where French designers Jean Paul Gaultier and Yves St Laurent have homes. It is what Max Lawrence at the holiday firm Best of Morocco's Marrakesh office, describes as 'ethno-chic tourism'.

Films such as Hideous Kinky have highlighted the country's cultural attractions while glossy magazines are increasingly choosing it as a location for fashion shoots. Last month the city hosted the country's first international film festival, attended by British stars such as Charlotte Rampling and Jeremy Irons. During the Conservative Party leadership contest Michael Portillo lay low in Taroudant for a few days before deciding to fight.

Two weeks after the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington, Sting and a group of 140 family and friends, expected to include Madonna and Guy Ritchie, were due to arrive in Morocco to celebrate the singer's fiftieth birthday. Three hotels had been block booked. He cancelled the trip.

And he was not the only one. In the past four weeks Max Lawrence's father Chris has fielded calls in his UK office from concerned holidaymakers who have booked trips for the coming months. Six Britons have dropped out of their holidays, three after 11 September and the rest following the outbreak of bombing in Afghanistan. More than a dozen Americans have cancelled, even though some of them weren't due to travel until March or April next year.

Forward bookings have fallen dramatically. 'At this time of year it is usually manic in the office but the phone has just stopped ringing,' said Lawrence Sr.

He has tried to reassure potential holidaymakers that there is no hostility towards Westerners in Morocco. 'I have had no calls from clients in Morocco worried about abuse or inhospitability.'

The downturn in demand has forced Royal Air Maroc to cut one of its three Stansted to Marrakesh flights, while GB Airways has also dropped one of its Marrakesh services. Last year 150,000 Britons visited Morocco. Until the attacks, the Morocco National Tourist Office in London was hoping this year's figure would exceed 170,000.

Local businessmen are concerned that things are only going to get worse. Moha Fedal, who runs the Moroccan restaurant Dar Moha Almadina, said: 'I've had to lay off two waiters already. It is quite busy on the weekends but the rest of the week is very quiet.'

He set up the restaurant with his Swiss wife two years ago. 'It's OK for me because I can always go back to Switzerland, but I worry about the rest of my staff.'

Traders in the souk are equally worried. Rachid Marghfour, who sells spices and medicinal herbs, said: 'When the Gulf war happened business was very bad. But we are against what happened in New York, they were innocent people, it was not right.'

The sad thing is that during my first visit to Morocco, I had found the people warm and friendly. I was hassled, but not as much as on trips with friends to the Covered Market in Istanbul or the souks of Cairo.

I was greeted with 'Bonjour Madame, ???a va?' as people tried to entice me into their shops. At one point I had to shake off a persistent hustler who refused to accept that I wasn't interested in him escorting me round the souk. When I walked down a backstreet looking for the Marrakesh Museum one man tried to talk to me but was warned off by another who then said: 'I'm not a guide, I work in the tannery. Would you like to come and see it?' When I politely declined and told him I was on my way to the museum, he just smiled and pointed me in the right direction.

I even walked around by myself at nine or 10 o'clock at night with little hassle. At no time did I experience hostility or aggression.

Max Lawrence, who has lived in Marrakesh for eight years, says the Moroccan government has clamped down on hustlers, who now face one month in jail for harassing tourists.

New Yorker Jo Antonio, a regular visitor to the country, has noticed the difference. 'Ten years ago tourists couldn't move for being hassled by hustlers. Now it is much less common.'

If there were fewer tourists around, it was hard to tell in the Medina. The souks were still bulging with French, American and British visitors and the main square, the Djemaa El Fna, was buzzing. Moroccans and tourists stood side by side as they were entertained by snake charmers, storytellers and the occasional troupe of acrobats.

As a former French Protectorate, Morocco has a strong bond with its former residents who treat it like their second home. I was amazed by the number of French tourists with babies or small children in tow. The French were obviously not letting recent events disrupt their holiday plans.

All the British tourists I spoke to were glad they had decided to continue with their holiday plans. William Nash and his girlfriend Nicole Rochman, from Little Missenden in Buckinghamshire, admitted they had been worried about visiting the country in the light of the terrorist attacks in the US. 'But we checked the Foreign Office advice and spoke to our tour operator who said that he was not aware of any incidents against tourists.'

After two weeks in the country, Jenny Stevens and her friend Jane Scott from London said they would not hesitate to recommend the destination to friends. 'We thought people would be hostile towards us but everyone has been really welcoming,' said Stevens.

'It's not like we're visiting Pakistan or Iran, this is a moderate Muslim country. We're probably safer here than at home at the moment.'

The day after bombs started dropping on Afghanistan, brother and sister Martin and Sara Smith, blissfully unaware of the start of the conflict until I spoke to them, were heading home after enjoying a fortnight surfing and shopping in the markets with four friends. 'We did think that something was wrong when the chanting in the mosque went on much longer than usual this morning,' said Sara.

Despite the outbreak of war, Sara and Martin said they would probably still have come to Morocco, as long as the FO said it was safe to travel. As Escape went to press, the FO said Morocco remained calm.

Probably the best advertisement for Morocco came from New Yorkers Cathy Woodman and Tracy Ball. 'We had been planning this trip for nearly six months, nothing was going to stop us travelling and we're glad we did. We won't let the terrorists break us.'

Getting there: Liz Bird travelled with The Best of Morocco