The wonders of Morocco

Backbone of a country ... MoroccoÕs tourism sector contributes some $280 million annually.

Morocco, the North African country closest to Europe that witnessed a steep drop in tourist arrivals in first-half 2002, expects greater tourism interest from the Gulf states with several Gulf-based airlines, including Emirates Airline, having established direct flight connections with the former French colony.

Rabat is accelerating development of tourism facilities and has marked out a number of resorts as having potential.

Its endeavours have drawn unprecedented attention from Saudi investment houses including the Dahlan Group, which is participating in the development of the sea resort of Taghazout, near the southern city of Agadir. Taghazout will be the construction site for 35 high-grade hotels and three golf links, among other facilities.

Morocco's tourism sector contributes some $280 million annually, but the first-half of 2002 saw a 13.7 per cent drop in tourist arrivals at 1.03 million and a 31 per cent slump in tourist receipts at $830 million, compared with the same period in 2001.

North Americans constituted the biggest drop in arrivals at 42 per cent, while, surprisingly, the fall in tourist arrivals from the neighbouring Maghreb was put at 27.7 per cent. Among European groups, the greatest reduction was seen among Scandinavians, 54.2 per cent. Anxious not to lose out on future revenues, the government is targeting 10 million overseas tourists per year by 2010.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have been invited to invest in an ambitious plan to develop five other resorts located on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts - Saaidia on the Mediterranean, and Khemis-Sahel, El Haouzia El Jadida, Mogador-Essaouira and Plage Blance on the Atlantic. These and the resort to be developed by the Saudi group in Taghazout are said to be worth up to $4 billion in investments.

The bulk of foreign holidaymakers is still made up of Westerners, but Moroccan tourism officials envision more Gulf nationals visiting their country in coming years.

Kabbaj Latifia, controller of hotels and travel agencies in Morocco's commercial capital of Casablanca, said Gulf nationals would now feel motivated to visit the country, considering their "growing animosity towards the US and the UK, which used to figure among their favourite destinations".

Most Gulf nationals enter Morocco through Casablanca, which has nightclubs along the beaches, but also a bustling old quarter, not far from the city centre. The city's Hyatt Regency Hotel has honoured the 1942 Hollywood film Casablanca with a bar named after it. Large portraits of the principal actors - Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman - are displayed on its walls as well as a model of the aircraft featured in the film.

Western tourists appear impressed by Morocco's strong oriental flavour and traditions. The fact that it lies virtually on Europe's doorstep has prompted many to make the trip there. Marrakesh, which has given Morocco its name, is the doorway to the Sahara and the ancient base for caravan routes across the great desert. The city is distinct for its largely ochre-hued buildings, date palms and views of the snow-topped Atlas range. Marrakesh people are proud of the 70-metre high 12th century Koutoubia Mosque, which got its name because, according to legend, Al Yaqoub Al Mansour, Sultan of the Al Mohad dynasty, discovered a library of religious books on the site.

The picturesque Minara Gardens, first laid out in the 12th century, has a reservoir replenished from Atlas flows, but Western tourists seem more interested in the ornate medieval tombs of kings, queens and nobility of the Sadien dynasty and in the Casbah or the fortified part of the city housing labyrinthine lanes, old residences and shops with a staggering array of merchandise from hats to antiques, carpets and spices.

A large number of European tourists head for the former imperial city of Fez, four hours by train from Casablanca. Founded in 808 by Moulay Idriss II, the son of Idriss I, the first sultan of Morocco, Fez is described as the spiritual and cultural capital of Morocco with traces of Arab, Palestinian, Berber, Andalusian and Saharan civilisations.

Handcrafted goods contributed 19 per cent of the Moroccan GDP in 2000 and last year the sector employed two million Moroccans or 20 per cent of the active population in the country. According to reports, foreign tourists paid $379 million in 1999 to buy Moroccan handcrafted items, contributing 23 per cent to tourism receipts.

The importance of handicraft income can be gauged by the fact that although 10 million people were engaged in agriculture against two million in handicraft, the latter contributed 19 per cent of the GDP against 16 per cent of the agricultural sector.