/ 25 July 2007

Moroccans say security fears hurting tourism

After three days sitting in a dusty clearing, Ibrahim is beginning to wonder if a European tourist will ever hire one of his camels for a tour of the rose-lined boulevards of Marrakesh.

”The number of visitors has dwindled to nothing in the past week,” said the 21-year-old Moroccan, his lips pale and dry in the summer heat. ”I’ve been waiting for three days but not a single tourist has come for a ride.

A tourism boom that transformed Marrakesh with hotels, apartments and golf courses seems to have paused, and some hotel managers and officials are blaming an increase in activity by Islamic militants.

North Africa has been on alert since al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the region threatened to escalate its war against ”corrupt” regional rulers and their Western allies.

In March and April in the coastal city of Casablanca, seven suicide bombers detonated devices, two outside United States diplomatic buildings, killing all the bombers and one policeman.

”The flow of tourists has been shrinking and the authorities refuse to make the numbers public,” said a Marrakesh government official who did not want to be named.

”The incidents in Casablanca in April were another factor in the trend of falling tourist arrivals because it tainted the image of Morocco.”

All that could spell problems for Morocco, once an off-beat destination for the adventurous that is now embracing the era of mass tourism.

Tourism has become Morocco’s biggest source of foreign currency, helping offset big trade deficits. Its importance is likely to grow as the government seeks to boost visitor numbers to 10-million by 2010, up from 6,5-million last year.

Open Sky agreements have allowed airlines to shuttle in millions of Europeans, who sunbathe around pools and shop for craftworks in the kingdom’s bustling old towns or flock to a growing number of open-air festivals.

Some economists warn there are risks in placing so much reliance on an industry whose chances could be threatened by security scares.

The number of visitors to Marrakesh was up only 1% in May, well short of what will be needed to fill the hotels mushrooming across the city and reach the 2010 target.

Recent bookings suggest a drop of between 17% and 50% in occupancy at 24 hotels with four or five stars, according to an official who asked to remain anonymous.


This month the government raised its security alert to ”maximum”, suggesting an attack by al-Qaeda-linked jihadists was imminent.

”We are worried about the declaration of the maximum level of security alert because tourism is a sensitive and fragile business which could be influenced by such an announcement,” said tour operator Khalil Majidi.

Others praised the government for its openness, saying honesty was the best approach in the long run.

”The Moroccan authorities took a stand that is responsible and transparent,” said Jalil Ben Abbass Tearji, head of the Moroccan tourism federation.

Some in the industry blamed the recent downturn on elections that kept French people at home or a failure of professional booking agents to keep up with the latest computer technology.

Loubna Lehresh, a receptionist in a high-class town house hotel, said she had seen some booking cancellations after the Casablanca bombs and again after the latest security alert.

”But we must wait for August to see if there’s a real drop,” she said. ”We are still hopeful.”

Marrakshis said they were no strangers to tight security, part of everyday life ever since hooded men shot dead two Spanish tourists in one of the city’s hotels in 1994.

More recently, roadblocks have been set up at the entrance to big towns and police in blue riot vans watch over Marrakesh’s biggest hotels.

But foreign tourists seemed more worried about escaping the searing heat.

”Bombings may occur anywhere and at any time, whether in Britain, Spain or elsewhere,” said Anna Pitzalis, a 29-year-old Dutch secretary. ”That does not prevent me from visiting this beautiful country.”

”Morocco is not Afghanistan, Iraq or Palestine,” said 52-year-old Italian Fabricio Corradin. – Reuters