A decade ago King Mohammed VI announced a new national strategy called ‘Vision 2010’, a long-term programme to increase international interest in Morocco, with the hope of attracting ten million holiday goers annually by 2010. In total, 9.4 million people visited last year, up from two million in 2001, and developments across the country suggest that the missing 600,000 are not too far behind.
At the heart of this growth lies Marrakech. From backpackers to the international jet set, Morocco’s Red City attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually and looks set to consolidate its position in the year ahead. Chiheb Ben-Mahmoud, SVP and head of hotel advisory for Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels Middle East and Africa, believes that the city, with its old-world charm intact, "… anchors Morocco as a choice destination".
The country’s leading tourism destination and hub of five-star developments has seen an influx of interest in the hotel space from global groups since 2009. The Four Seasons Hotel, which opened in June 2011, was the first luxury international hotel brand in the city. Later this year, W Hotels, Rocco Forte and Park Hyatt will also enter the market.
Marrakech has been attracting tourists since the first luxury hotel, La Mamounia, opened in 1923, heralded as the choice location for international royalty, politicians and celebrities. However, since it reopened in 2009 following a three-year $180m renovation, it has received mounting competition from hoteliers keen to take advantage of interest in the city as a luxury destination.
The Royal Mansour, which also opened in 2009, is one such contender and its foundations look solid. While Winston Churchill may have visited La Mamounia for the occasional holiday, the Royal Mansour is owned by King Mohammed VI himself, and without doubt the most powerful man in Morocco.
Short-term setbacks for Moroccan hotels
Although the market has been growing steadily, it is not all good news. Ben-Mahmoud explains that the country is still suffering from the global economic downturn despite significant investment plans and luxury brand openings in the city.
"Similar to all investments, hotel groups are feeling the pinch of the new financial environment," he notes. "Things are still moving ahead, albeit at a slower pace."
However, amid a sluggish financial recovery, the market received another blow. Events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have rocked Morocco’s unmatched decade of tourism and hotel development, and seen unrest spill over onto the domestic scene. Five people were killed and 128 injured during prodemocracy demonstrations on 20 February 2011.
Following this, according to national newspaper L’Economiste, 20,000 hotel nights were cancelled. Then, just as the industry appeared to be picking up, on 28 April a bomb explosion destroyed the Argana cafe in Djemaa el-Fna square, Marrakech’s tourism epicentre, killing 15 people.
Despite this, Ben-Mahmoud says that the Arab spring has not had a major impact on the country’s hotel industry. "Morocco has been shielded, and I don’t think the protests have been a great factor," he says. "Hotel investment is a long-term venture and is not related to any short-term considerations."
With reservations for the usual high season of March to May down by 40% this year, it is clear that Marrakech has suffered from the revolt, even if only in the short term.
"It would be foolish to say that what is happening in the Middle East didn’t have any effect on Marrakech," says Holger Frehde, director of sales, Four Seasons. "The growth that we have witnessed over the last few years came to a shrieking halt. There were a lot of cancellations throughout the city, but since the terrorist attack at the end of April, it has been calm and has started to pick up."
Didier Picquot, general manager, La Mamounia, says that the cancellations as a result of the anti-government protests presented a turbulent time for the hotel.
"Following the events that kicked off in late February, we had reduced reservations and some cancellations for March, so it was a quieter month than we budgeted for," he begins. "Then, we picked up and were full over Easter. We had a very busy April until the end of the month when there was, again, a slow down. We hope that everything will stabilise as quickly as possible and that the market will pick up again."
Marrakech: the heart of a different world
Morocco’s tourism industry is the second biggest earner of foreign exchange in the country, particularly driven by the French market, due to shared language and close proximity.
Less than two-and-a-half hours from Paris, Marrakech is increasingly being viewed as a weekend-break destination by European travellers, further enhanced by British Airways operating direct flights to the city from March 2011.
Picquot notes that it is Marrakech’s Arabic experience, just a short hop away from Europe, that presents the city with a trump card.
"If you want a quick getaway, a different culture and to live a different experience, Morocco is the closest destination," he states. "Marrakech lies at the very heart of that."
Frehde agrees. "If you’re looking for a true retreat then you won’t find a better place," he says.
"There are no skyscrapers or contemporary giant malls. All the buildings have the same rose colour."
Although Agadir is perhaps its greatest rival in terms of domestic tourist numbers, it is Istanbul that provides Marrakech with real competition.
"When visitors come to Marrakech, they are suddenly in a very different world – an Arabic, Middle Eastern world in North Africa, which is very open to tourism," Frehde says. "Istanbul is similar; it’s Muslim and has a lot of charm, but it’s a bigger city and much more advanced."
Hoteliers have cottoned on to visitors’ affection towards Marrakech’s very particular style and have maintained a traditional Moroccan aesthetic within their hotels. The riad renaissance has continued with Angsana Hotels and Resorts, a subsidiary of Singapore’s Banyan Tree group, which opened such retreats in the city.
"There has been a real trend in renovating heritage buildings and riads in Marrakech, and even palaces have been converted into hotels," says Ben-Mahmoud.
La Mamounia’s latest renovation also abandoned its art deco look and returned to original Moroccan architecture and décor.
"Guests are now looking for authenticity," notes Picquot. "There is new furniture, of course, but the building has gone back to how it originally looked; however, despite renovations over the years, the hotel never lost its personality. New hotels will find it difficult to capture this Moroccan soul. We are located within the walls of the Medina and to recreate the history that La Mamounia has is impossible. Even our gardens are legendary; we have olive trees that are 400 years old."
Despite recent events, there is a general optimism that interest in Marrakech will continue to grow. The recently announced ‘Vision 2020’ aims to build on the foundations already in place, investing billions of euros in an effort to double the number of tourists, increase revenue and create 147,000 new jobs in the hospitality sector nationwide. The city helped drive the first phase of growth and looks well positioned to take this even further.