Pandemic paralyses tourism-dependent Marrakech

Previous top-destination city is affected by domestic measures but also by global travel restrictions.
Wednesday 14/10/2020
A few people walk by mostly-closed stalls at the Jemaa el-Fna square in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh. (AFP)
A few people walk by mostly-closed stalls at the Jemaa el-Fna square in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh. (AFP)

RABAT- The tourist city of Marrakech in Morocco is fighting the consequences of COVID-19, which has forced the commercial sectors associated with the arrival of tourists — such as handicrafts and transport — into recession after authorities decided to close the country’s borders and declared a state of health emergency.

Although Moroccan news agency MAP confirmed the arrival of some tourist groups to the city over the past few weeks, this did not restore the city’s usual luster and momentum, as the number of tourist groups remains limited.

Before the crisis, Marrakech’s streets were crowded, city squares noisy and its markets and historic shrines bustling with visitors from all over the world. Marrakech was the top tourist destination in Morocco before the coronavirus pandemic knocked on its doors.

The red city could not withstand the pressure as the pandemic swept through, causing the closure of most of its facilities and halting tourism movement after Moroccan authorities stopped international travel.

The slowdown of tourist activity affects a sector that is considered the lifeblood of the city and which affects other sectors linked to it, such as trade, handicraft, hospitality, and tourism transportation. All of this made Marrakech stand still after it was the most bustling and sought-after city in the country.

On March 19, authorities announced a state of health emergency and travel restrictions in the country until November 10 as part of measures aimed at containing the virus.

Moroccan tourism accounts for about 7% of the country’s GDP. More than half a million people work in the sector, which is also a key source of hard currency.

The closure of the borders and strict quarantine measures after the virus’s outbreak thrust the city and its residents into an unprecedented full-fledged crisis affecting all sectors, said Moroccan MP Bechir Toubia, who is also a member of Marrakech’s municipal council.

He added that “the damages caused by the pandemic in light of the city’s dependence primarily on tourism, which is the backbone of life in it, extended to all economic activities related to tourism, such as hotels, restaurants, handicraft, transportation, and others.”

He added that “the adverse effects that befell the city in particular and tourist cities in Morocco in general, as a result of the coronavirus, made supporting the tourism sector in the country a priority for the competent authorities.”

Toubia stressed that the city’s crisis is not mainly related to authorities’ decision regarding the borders, but to travel restrictions imposed by many other countries. Therefore, the solution to the crisis is not only in Morocco’s hands.

According to data from the tourism ministry, Morocco received about 13 million tourists in 2019, a 5% increase from 2018. Marrakech alone receives more than a million tourists annually.

Morocco, which considers the tourism sector one of the pillars of its economy, was not immune from the effects of the pandemic that struck the world, and this was confirmed in numbers by Tourism Minister Nadia Alaoui before parliament on June 9.

A Morrocan woman wearing a protective mask walks through the nearly deserted Jamaa el-Fna square in the heart of Marrakesh. (AFP)
A Morrocan woman wearing a protective mask walks through the nearly deserted Jamaa el-Fna square in the heart of Marrakesh. (AFP)

Alaoui confirmed that the number of inbound tourists decreased by 45% during the first four months of 2020 compared to the same period of last year, while overnight stays decreased by 42%, and the sector’s revenues decreased by 15%.

Mohamed Bamansour, general secretary of the Federation of Tourist Transport in Morocco, told Anadolu Agency that “the tourism transport sector, whether at the level of Marrakesh or all of Morocco, is in a state of paralysis and complete standstill.”

Bamansour added that the sector’s greatest challenge is protecting human resources working in it and who have been trained by transport companies. This task, he said, has become nearly impossible to continue in light of the stifling economic crisis.

The crisis is exacerbated, Bamansour said, by the fact that 80% of tourism transport companies are bound by bank loans. This is compounded by the state’s lack of intervention, whether in providing support or postponing loan debt.

It seems that the sector will see continued fallout even after the crisis is over. According to Bamansour, data indicate that tourism will not recover from the crisis until at least three years, if activity is to return to normal at all.