Quake tourism slump could cut lifeline to Morocco's mountain villages

The Sept. 8 quake damaged historic sites in Marrakesh, the country's fourth-largest city, but the effects have been most acute in the High Atlas Mountains. Picture: Reuters

The Sept. 8 quake damaged historic sites in Marrakesh, the country's fourth-largest city, but the effects have been most acute in the High Atlas Mountains. Picture: Reuters

Published Sep 16, 2023


By Benjamin Soloway

In the aftermath of the earthquake that left more than 2,900 people dead in Morocco, many there who rely on tourism fear for their livelihoods.

The Sept. 8 quake damaged historic sites in Marrakesh, the country's fourth-largest city, but the effects have been most acute in the High Atlas Mountains, in devastated villages closer to the epicentre.

Before the coronavirus hit, tourism accounted for more than 7 percent of Morocco's gross domestic product.

Nearly 13 million tourists visited Morocco in 2019, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Those figures dropped steeply as the pandemic shut down global travel, but Morocco had projected a full recovery in 2023. The earthquake could throw off those plans.

After the twin earthquakes in February that left nearly 60,000 people dead in Turkey and Syria, the Turkish tourism sector was slow to recover.

Marrakesh, the largest city affected by Morocco's quake, has been a hub and waypoint for travellers in the region for nearly 1,000 years.

The labyrinthine Medina - the market streets that make up a large portion of the walled old city - is listed as a World Heritage site by Unesco, the UN cultural organisation.

The main gathering place, Jemaa el-Fnaa, reportedly the busiest square in Africa, is thronged year-round with visitors, fruit sellers, grilled-meat vendors and street musicians, who maintain a buzzing, carnival-like atmosphere late into the night.

While the modern parts of the city faired relatively well in the quake, some structures in the old city sustained major damage.

The Kharbouch Mosque, near the centre of the Medina, is crumbling.

"I was able to visit the medina of Marrakech to see the damage to this Unesco World Heritage site," Éric Falt, the director of the Unesco office for North Africa, based in Rabat, Morocco, wrote on Instagram. "They are much more significant than expected."

"First there are major cracks on the minaret of the Koutoubia, the most emblematic structure, but we can also see the almost complete destruction of the minaret of the Kharbouch mosque on Jama El Fnaa square," he wrote.

"The city walls are also damaged in many places. The most obviously affected district is however the Mellah (former Jewish district) where the destruction of old houses is the most spectacular."

But fears over the impact on tourism are not limited to the city, where, in large part, life continues as normal after the quake.

The communities hit hardest - small villages in the High Atlas south of Marrakesh, where most homes are still built in a traditional Berber style with clay bricks - also depend on income from hikers and other visitors, drawn to their scenic, rugged landscapes.

"While most tourists may know about famous monuments in large cities, smaller villages contain their own monuments that have suffered from marginalization for decades," Brahim El Guabli, an associate professor of Arabic studies at Williams College, told the Associated Press. "The entire Moroccan High Atlas is strewn with important historical monuments."

Although the mountain towns see only a fraction of the tourist traffic that flows through Morocco's major cities, the region is dotted with ancient mosques and ruins, hiking trails and national parks.

People who have lost homes and loved ones in the earthquake must now worry about how to earn a living.

"The tourism sector in Marrakesh will suffer for months, while the surrounding areas will require years of rehabilitation," said Rachid Aourraz, a Morocco-based non-resident senior scholar at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.

"I think the development model pursued in the region must be reconsidered," he said. "Relying solely on tourism is illogical. Economic activity must be diversified to avoid stagnation caused by the collapse of the tourism sector during crises."

Morocco's government on Thursday announced a plan to provide rebuilding funds to people whose homes were destroyed.

Intissar Fakir, director of the North Africa and Sahel programme at the Middle East Institute, said she hoped to see these "reasonable promises" introduce "some degree of oversight" over building standards.

In a region where impoverished villages - accessible only by unpaved, winding roads - see limited government services and rely on small-scale agriculture, even a trickle of visitors can be a vital source of income.

"Some of these villages exist almost exclusively because of tourism," said Graham H. Cornwell, a historian of the Middle East and North Africa at George Washington University.

"A lot of the economic impact is going to be invisible in places that double as homes and businesses - maybe a small cafe on a terrace outside of the house, paying all in cash. It's impossible to quantify."