Travelling to Morocco? What to know about the earthquake's impact

Rubble litters a hillside in the village of Amerzegan in the region of Ighli in earthquake-hit Morocco. Picture: AFP

Rubble litters a hillside in the village of Amerzegan in the region of Ighli in earthquake-hit Morocco. Picture: AFP

Published Sep 12, 2023


By Natalie B. Compton, Sofia Andrade and Heidi Pérez-Moreno

Near midnight on Friday, Morocco was rocked by a 6.8-magnitude earthquake, the strongest to hit the area in more than a century.

As of Monday afternoon, the death toll from the natural disaster was more than 2,600 people, according to the country's Interior Ministry.

The quake struck about 47 miles (about 75km) southwest of Marrakesh. The areas most affected were the villages in the High Atlas Mountains, where homes and lives were destroyed, but the earthquake was felt in Rabat, Fez and as far away as Casablanca, more than 180 miles from its epicentre.

Akim Elanbassi, the owner of Morocco Travel Agency, was staying at a boutique hotel in the Ourika Valley as part of a location scouting trip for his family's business.

He said he felt the entire building shake. Within minutes, the entire Berber village of Anrar was outside as people fled the explosion-like noises coming from their walls.

Elanbassi and his family - his wife, two children and mother-in-law - decided to flee the mountains and drive the 38 kilometres to Marrakesh, where they would sleep in the car.

"It was really loud . . . terrifying. Very terrifying. It's like in the movies but it's real, real stuff," Elanbassi said. "It was crazy. But we were very lucky because maybe the area we were at did not get hit as hard as other areas."

By Monday, official recovery and rescue efforts were under way as officials accepted assistance from countries, including Spain and the United Arab Emirates.

Should I cancel my trip to Morocco?

Michael Diamond, a travel expert who focuses on Morocco and who arrived in the city shortly after the earthquake, said on Monday that "things are generally okay" in Marrakesh and "people are going about their lives."

Tours and museum visits, he said, have continued, though people remain "cognizant that an hour away, people are fighting for their lives."

"The mood in Morocco, in Marrakesh, is picking up the pieces, mourning, [and] trying to support their official days of mourning [declared by the Moroccan government] and rescue effort," Diamond said.

Karim Fehry Fassy, the Marrakesh-based founder of the Morocco travel company Alizes Private, sent out an email on Sunday to concerned clients with a clear message: Please don't cancel future trips.

He assured travellers that most of Marrakesh has been spared from the disaster, and that airports, hotels, roads and highways are operational.

Fassy concluded the email, "Your support, whether through donations or tourism, will help us rebuild and restore the beautiful High Atlas Mountains and contribute to the recovery of this remarkable region."

Tim Williamson, customer director of the company Responsible Travel has a similar message.

"It's natural that some holidaymakers due to visit Morocco might be rethinking their plans, but it's important to note that many parts of the country, including Marrakesh, are still perfectly safe for travel," Williamson said in an email.

"Many people in places less affected by the earthquake are still dependent on tourism - and your visit to them is unlikely to hamper any ongoing relief efforts."

The US Embassy in Morocco wrote in a safety advisory last week that it is working to monitor the recent earthquake closely and has been in touch with local authorities since last week's disaster.

It noted that local resources in affected areas may be limited, including hospitals in Marrakesh, transportation services, airports and law enforcement.

What historic sites were damaged?

One Unesco World Heritage site that faced severe damage was Marrakesh's vibrant old city, the Medina, which is located roughly 45 miles northeast of the earthquake's epicentre.

The site, which draws millions of tourists every year, saw damaged walls and crumbed areas that have stood tall since the early 12th century.

Several videos posted to social media showed Kutubiyya Mosque, the largest mosque in Marrakesh, shaking as the earthquake droned on. CNN reported it is still intact.

Gina Porter, a travel adviser with GG Luxury Travel, was in the old city of Marrakesh when the earthquake started.

Mohamed Sebbagh, 66, stands in front of his destroyed house, in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake, in Amizmiz. Picture: REUTERS/Nacho Doce

"Some people are sleeping in the parks, still scared to return to their homes," Porter said via email. "But most everything is open. Hotels are operating. It is safe to be in Morocco now."

Are tours still operating?

Travellers should check with their tour companies for information specific to their booked trips.

Nicole Powell, a spokeswoman for Intrepid Travel, says that according to the company's teams on the ground, Morocco is safe and open for travel.

Still, the company cancelled all trips through Wednesday. Customers on those trips were contacted for rescheduling or refunds.

Williamson said that some small group operators have cancelled trips this week and that Responsible Travel has local partners in the High Atlas Mountains that have been affected with road blocks and rescue efforts. "But in many places, much of normal life is resuming. So lots of trips are still going ahead," he said.

Ibrahim Sekayi, a travel Agent with Dav Safaris, says trips taking place through December 2023 are being rescheduled. Clients who are not interested in rescheduling are being refunded.

Are flights operating as normal?

Several airlines are lifting fees for those who have planned flights or trips into Morocco, specifically affected areas.

Royal Air Maroc will rebook tickets for flights arriving to or leaving from the cities of Marrakesh and Agadir.

If customers have a travel date until Sept. 23, they can make a free change to and from the same destinations for trips within 15 days following their initial flight date. Any change request must be sent to the original vendor by Sept. 17.

British Airways is continuing to operate and has also changed the aircraft type for flights to Marrakesh over the past few days to make more seats available.

Customers booking through the British Airways Holidays platform can change travel dates, or choose a different destination, with no additional fees.

"The welfare of our customers is our priority, and we have contacted our British Airways Holidays customers in Morocco to check that they're safe.

“We are continuing to monitor the situation closely, and customers due to travel to or from Marrakesh in the next two weeks can change their dates free of charge if they wish," the airline said in a statement.

Turkish Airlines passengers, or those flying through AnadoluJet, will be permitted to make free reservation changes if they are registered for Casablanca and Marrakesh flights between Sept. 9 and Sept. 23, as long as they were issued before Sept. 8. Passengers have until Sept. 23 to request changes.

The airline said in a statement that passengers can receive refunds if they have unused tickets, or partially used tickets for which the trip has not been completed. Those who have booked through the airline can extend their trips until Oct. 30.

How can I help?

Various national and international non-profit organisations have also posted fundraisers to raise money for those affected in Morocco.