Facelift helps Morocco's Old City of Fez lure tourists
FEZ, Morocco - The imperial city of Fez was often overlooked by tourists in favour of Marrakech but Morocco's "spiritual" capital is now bustling with visitors because of major renovations and low-cost flights.
"It is an open-air museum, with the largest pedestrian zone in the world and its 10,000 alleyways," said Yassir Jawra, vice-president of the Fez tourism commission.
Fez "is the spiritual capital of Morocco, famed for its culture and its (age-old) handicraft work," he added.
Since 2013, more than $103 million of investments have been poured into Fez to restore the ninth-century walled medina and develop tourism.
The medina, home to the world's oldest working library, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 for its "outstanding universal value." Guardian of priceless treatises in Islamic studies, astronomy and medicine, the library is nestled in the maze of narrow and dark alleyways, which tourists and donkey-drawn carts can struggle to navigate.
Like many monuments, it was renovated after authorities in the late 1980s issued a report declaring that more than half of the buildings in the medina, following years of neglect and a lack of public funds, were crumbling and 10% were threatened with ruin.
Behind the high crenellated walls that surround the medina, lie 9,000 historical houses, 11 madrassas, 83 mausoleums, 176 mosques and 1,200 handicraft workshops. Patrician palaces with their secret gardens and terraces, elegant fountains and ancient caravansary, or inns, are among the jewels lying there to be discovered.
Fouad Serrhini, head of the Agency of Development and Restoration, tasked with rehabilitating the medina, said "thousands" of buildings and monuments have been saved from ruin since 2013.
"They were chosen according to their state of degradation and how urgently the work was needed," he said.
In all, 4,000 buildings were saved from 2013-18 and 27 monuments were restored.
In April, Moroccan King Mohammed VI visited Fez to inaugurate buildings that had been renovated and introduce the second phase of the rehabilitation programme. Following his visit, authorities issued a report insisting that the rehabilitation work respect the medina's "authenticity" and "original architecture."
"The ancient medina is a live treasure, hidden and secret, which cannot be taken lightly," said Salim Belghazi, a 33-year-old who has transformed his 14th-century riad, or traditional family home, into a private museum.
Belghazi, who is from a wealthy background, said he hopes that, despite the transformation, Fez will maintain its soul.
Tourists have flocked to Fez since the regional Fez Sais International Airport was expanded to accommodate the growing number of visitors and low-cost flights from across Europe. The number of passengers increased from 108,000 in 2004 to more than 1 million in 2018, official figures indicate.
Marrakech remains the country's top tourist destination, with more than 2 million arrivals in 2017.
Tourism is a major source of revenue for Morocco, which received more than 12 million visitors in 2018, official data state.
Abderahim Belkhayat, head of a regional body of artisans, said the influx of visitors to Fez "benefits" craftsmen, noting that three-quarters of the medina's residents earn a living directly or indirectly from the sector.
Local authorities mapped out a "vision" to revamp the sector by giving it a "new look" to produce "high-quality" crafts, he said.
A 2005 official report indicated that, in the long term, authorities hope to transform the medina into a "showcase" of handicrafts while the workshops themselves would be relocated outside the walls.
So far, 6,000 potters and brass and copper workers have been moved into zones with modern infrastructure and tanners are expected to follow to a separate location.
The idea is to rid the medina of the cacophony of noise from brassware and potter workshops as well as the pungent odours from the ancient tanneries -- the latter a "must" stop on the tourist circuit.
Tourists, their noses covered with mint leaves to ward off the stench, congregate on terraces overlooking the tanneries to snap pictures of the men, using the same methods their ancestors did, working below.
The tanners stand almost knee-deep in large vats containing quicklime, cow urine, salt and water to clean hides, which they soak in pigeon excrement and water before the dying process begins.
The smell is nauseating but the sight seems to delight visitors and the result, including leather belts and bags sold in boutiques, proves popular with buyers.