Morocco ‘breathes again’ as tourists return after COVID shutdown

Tourism – which accounts for around 7% of Morocco’s economy and creates hundreds of thousands of formal and informal jobs – has been hurt by Morocco’s strict restrictions during the pandemic.

Tourists shop in the old town of Marrakech, Morocco, on May 12, 2022. Photo: FADEL SENNA/AFP

MARRAKECH – Moroccan snake charmer Youssef has seen long-absent tourists flock to Marrakech’s famous Jamaa El-Fna square once again, ending a long hiatus forced by the Covid pandemic.

“We are breathing again,” he said.

The ancient southern city, famous for its views of graceful red buildings backed by palm trees and snow-capped mountains, has long drawn visitors including celebrities from Madonna to Yves Saint Laurent.

But it has been particularly hard hit by a two-year tourism slump that saw arrivals to the North African kingdom drop to just a third last year from 2019.

For Youssef, taking a break to play his oboe-like “ghaita” pipe in front of the seemingly hypnotized snake, “it’s such a pleasure to be back here after these slow and painful months.”

Tourism – which accounts for around 7% of Morocco’s economy and creates hundreds of thousands of formal and informal jobs – has been hurt by Morocco’s strict restrictions during the pandemic.

Today, Marrakech residents are seeing signs of hope again as tourists have returned to the narrow lanes of the UNESCO-listed old town.

Café terraces are full and foreigners roam the shops and market stalls in search of traditional clothing, furniture and souvenirs.

“We haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, but the situation has improved over the past month,” salesman Abdellah Bouazri said, after serving an Argentinian customer in a Boca Juniors soccer top.

Bouazri, 35, said the coronavirus forced him to temporarily give up his shop and find alternative work as a security guard.

The father-of-two was one of many in the beleaguered industry forced to find alternative income – including many informal workers without contracts or social security.

But he said he was optimistic about the future: “It was hard, but today I am delighted to find my real job.”

‘INCOMPLETE RECOVERY’

Morocco reopened its land borders this week with the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, two years after they were closed due to Covid and a major diplomatic row.

It was the latest stage in a slow recovery of the tourism sector, supported by the government which launched a support fund of two billion dirhams (190 million euros), in addition to the 95 million euros that he unlocked to support hotels.

“The recovery may be underway, but it is incomplete,” said the head of the national hotel federation FNIH, Lahcen Zelmat.

According to the Ministry of Tourism, Morocco made some 3.2 billion euros in tourism revenue last year, less than half the figure for the year before the pandemic.

But first-quarter revenues were up 80% from a year ago, according to official figures, and the finance ministry predicts a “more favorable outlook for 2022”.

This was reflected in the steady stream of tourists outside the Medersa Ben Youssef, a 16th-century Koranic school in Marrakech.

“This place is magical – I’m impressed with all the details,” said Nick, a 29-year-old Londoner visiting for the first time. “Since COVID, I miss exploring new cultures.”

Nearby, other visitors lined up outside the Yves Saint Laurent museum, one of the city’s top tourist spots.

“The museum was a must,” said Coco, a Chinese student living in Germany. “We consider ourselves very lucky to be able to travel again, and we are really charmed.”

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