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What I Learned Travelling Morocco During the Pandemic

For most of us travel this year has meant moving about locally, if at all.  I’m lucky then to live in such a wonderfully diverse country as Morocco with plenty of opportunity to explore. Morocco did surprisingly well in the initial months of home confinement, achievements that sadly, as with many other places around the world, dissipated once some partial freedom of movement was restored over the summer. All things considered, things here could have been much, much worse.

So, some few weeks ago, after many hotels around Morocco announced a re-opening, I thought it would be timely to get out and have a look through the country to see what the new reality offered. The decision to take a trip as the pandemic is still ongoing was I believe an acceptable level of risk given the trip parameters: driving in our own vehicle through the south of the country to see the desert dunes of Erg Chebbi in the far south-east of the country, some of Morocco’s remotest territory.

“Morocco is open for business” has been the battle cry here since September from the hospitality industry, as people are facing increasingly harder times without much support at the government level. It is true that any foreigner from a visa-exempt country (which includes all Europeans, Canadians and Americans) is allowed to visit and travel in Morocco now, flying in on a number of approved airlines so long as as one has a hotel reservation, and a negative PCR test less than 72 hours old.  But whether it makes sense to visit now is an entirely other matter, and a very personal decision. In that spirit I thought sharing my perceptions of travel in Morocco over this period might shed some light for people considering it.

Let me start by saying that one of the biggest revelations about this trip was that I love my job, odd as it may sound to say that. I realized how much I missed planning trips for others as well as for myself, and I am proud of the work we do and optimistic for the future of travel once the pandemic is over.

Mask-wearing is sporadic and problematic.

Fingers crossed that with the announcements of vaccines on the way and the development of new treatments, we will soon find the pandemic in the rear-view mirror, but the reality is that spread is still on the rise and the message about the necessity of wearing masks in public has fallen on deaf ears in some quarters.  The further away from bigger cities like Marrakech and Fes I got, the more I found mask-wearing troublingly infrequent. According to one local I spoke to in Rissani (near the desert dunes), “there’s no corona here”- clearly a misinformed statement although numbers have been lower in places where there is more opportunity to social distance. I should note however that at all hotels we visited, mask wearing was consistent and every effort was taken to follow health and hygiene protocols.

Construction seems to be happening everywhere.

I imagine we should take this as a positive development, but we were surprised how much construction was underway over our trip, notably the work to finish the new Tizi-n-Tichka highway and the national road from Ouarzazate to Er-Rachidia which should shorten travel times. When travelers return to road trip the south of Morocco, they should find a much improved infrastructure which will make the prospect of the long overland distances more tenable.

Less population-dense areas are fine to visit, but cities present a mixed-bag offering.

Maybe that’s a given, but I did not expect just how shut down places like Fes and Marrakech would be after a full month of borders technically being open. Many hotels and shop owners, but also some monuments, had not re-opened at the time of our trip due to an almost total lack of tourists. I imagine that once the trickle of visitors turns to a stream that will change in the months to come, but what it meant for us was less shopping and monument-hopping, more time spent in rural areas and being in the great outdoors.  Morocco is strong on these fronts but there is less opportunity to engage with local culture and customs at present.

Local tourism will not save the Moroccan tourist industry.

Morocco has a number of challenges moving forward to keep their tourism industry robust.  Local tourists, the overwhelming majority from the Rabat-Casablanca area, traditionally flock to the coast in the summer, and to Marrakech at weekends and holidays. Previously there’s been very little internal tourism to the interior, and many areas that are frequented by foreigners are relatively unknown to the local market. Outside of Marrakech and Fes, most of the places we visited on our driving circuit between two made clear the opportunity for internal tourism. It’s a great opportunity for Moroccans to rediscover their own country, having spent years (and dirhams) traveling abroad, but Morocco needs a return of international travelers in the short term (the next couple of years) to help stay afloat.

Less is More.

I’ve often thought this but in the context of a tourism industry in a standstill it’s become all the more clear. We did less, took longer than usual to do it, and the rewards of this trip were the opportunity to see things we would certainly have missed had we been rushing through – meeting a few locals proud of where they live, and most importantly, enjoying quality time as a family that otherwise isn’t normally possible back home, much as I suspect is the case with most of us and our busy schedules.

I took this trip with my wife, who is Moroccan, and her mother and sister, none of whom had ever seen this part of Morocco’s famed desert. Seeing the country with them was like seeing it again with new eyes, and a reminder that this road trip which is fairly straight-forward and firmly on the tourist circuit, is still an amazing look at Morocco’s diverse geography and history. Simply put, this is a beautiful country. Kasbah villages, the High Atlas Mountains, crumbling palaces, desert dunes, vast empty spaces populated by nomadic shepherds and old-growth cedar forests are all things we saw along the way, and they live up to whatever hype you may already be familiar with. Morocco and this particular journey is a road-trip dream, and the day when we can write off corona as a reason for not visiting can’t come soon enough.

Some travel discounts were offered on this trip, but otherwise was funded out of Sebastian’s own pocket. As always, our opinions are our own.  Don’t hesitate to get in touch to start thinking about your Morocco road-trip adventure.

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