Rock the Kasbah

Several multi-million dollar Gulf investment projects in Morocco, and an increasing number of flights to Casablanca are opening wide the door to North Africa, making way for both business and leisure travellers

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By  Joseph Mortimer Published  September 3, 2006

|~|Marrakech-large.gif|~|The Middle East travel market is yet to take advantage of its North African relative, Morocco, where Arabic is widely spoken, shopping is abundant, and the climate offers a pleasant escape from the intense Gulf heat.|~|Depending on whom you ask, Morocco can be a stirring holiday getaway, a crucial business venue, a novel incentives destination, or a gateway to North Africa. For those in the industry responsible for promoting Morocco as all of these things, several key factors are making life a lot easier. These include the imminent arrival of several UAE- and Bahrain-based real estate companies, which are set to build numerous tourism projects, and a new direct flight courtesy of Etihad Airways, all of which means that there is potential for enormous tourism growth in all market sectors. For many industry insiders, the influx of at least eight new real estate developments, and the impending boom in the arrival of construction companies and high-powered business men is the light that will lead Morocco out of relative obscurity. Dubai Holdings is currently investing more than US $12 billion in Moroccan tourism projects, including Dubai Towers, Casablanca, and Marina de Casablanca; worth around $1 billion collectively, while UAE-based real estate giant, Emaar has announced plans for six major developments stretching from the Atlas Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. Oukaimeden will become the Middle East’s first golf and ski resort; with 2000 hotel rooms, more than 300 retail units, and 25,000m² of business and conference facilities. Saphira, an AED12.5 billion ($3.4 billion) waterfront community in Morocco’s capital, Rabat, is expected to be completed within 10 years. The project stretches over 11km of Rabat’s beachfront, featuring a marina district, a convention centre, a resort hotel, a park, souks, and an arts district, including an opera house, concert hall, and school for dramatic arts. As far at the Moroccan Government Tourist Office (MGTO) is concerned, tourism will always be the leading factor that drives visitor growth. Since it opened in 2003, the MGTO’s regional outlet in Dubai has played a major role in promoting Morocco throughout the Middle East and Asia. “The motivation for people to come is vacations mainly, then business and other sectors,” says Fouad Bouchama, marketing manager of the Dubai branch, adding MGTO will target Arab families in particular. Bouchama says the leading inbound Arab countries to Morocco are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt. From January to June 2005, MGTO statistics recorded 95,000 arrivals from Arab countries, from a total of 2.6 million arrivals. During the same period in 2006, 110,000 arrivals from the region were recorded; a 16% increase. Nearly two thirds of the total 7.63 million room nights from January to June 2006 were in Marrakech and Agadir alone, with Casablanca being the third most popular city, recording 600,000 overnights. Bouchama suggests that people visiting Morocco go for more than a week. “Morocco has so much to offer, and it needs a lot more time than some places to be discovered,” he explains. Morocco offers a varied landscape, patched together with influences from nearby countries in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East; factors that influence everything from the language to the cuisine.||**||Carry me home|~|Rugs.gif|~|Shopping paradise: haggling over the price of a Moroccan rug over a cup of mint tea can take all day. |~|Since its launch in June this year, Etihad Airways’ flight from Abu Dhabi to Casablanca has upped its frequency from three to four weekly, and more increases are likely next year. “It’s a very new route for Etihad, so it’s quite difficult to establish the trends, but Morocco has great tourism potential for both Arab nationals and expatriates,” says Nick Wood, general manager, Etihad Holidays. “Next year, we’re looking to expand our product and will probably increase our frequencies too, because Morocco is clearly going to grow [as a destination].” Etihad Holidays packages are currently based on three night stays, with the option to extend. According to Wood, customers tend to opt for a “two centre” stay, spending a few nights in Casablanca and a few nights in Marrakech, and the eight-hour flight does not appear to be putting people off. “It’s a destination that without any question will grow in popularity, simply because it’s a country that has attractive propositions for both the locals and the ex-pat community,” he says. However, leisure travellers bound for Morocco are just one market segment. According to Abbas Al-Ahli, Etihad Airways’ country manager for Morocco, many visitors come to Morocco as part of multi country visits. “We are hoping to operate as a feeder to other countries close to Morocco like Mauritania and Senegal. We are planning to target those markets too, so Morocco will be like a gateway for North Africa,” he says. Etihad’s recently launched service between Abu Dhabi and Casablanca has increased the total number of flights from the UAE to Morocco from seven to 11 weekly, adding to Emirates’ daily service.||**||Lose yourself in Marrakech|~|Mosque.gif|~||~|According to figures published by the Ministry of Tourism in Marrakech, of the 1.18 million people that visited Marrakech in 2004, only 7251 of them were from Arab countries. In 2005, the total number of visitors increased to 1.4 million, marking a 19.54% increase from the previous year, while the Arab visitor figures reached 8468; a 17% increase. “In the past, most of the visitors from Arab countries came from Saudi Arabia,” says Jamal Bikri, vice president of the ministry’s Marrakech office. Despite the city’s popularity with European and North African visitors, the Arab market has not taken to Marrakech as well as it might have. Ancient Marrakech is a pulsating vibrant city; Arabic is spoken in equal measure to, if not more than French, and the labyrinthine souks are a shopper’s delight. “In the last two years, many Arabs have come here to look at investing in tourist projects,” says Bikri. “We want to diversify our clients,” he explains. “Classically our clients have come from Europe; mainly the UK, France, Spain and Italy, and a huge number of regional visitors. The problem with flights has not helped, but recent developments will bring more tourists from the UAE and the rest of the Gulf.” Given its prime location on the Northern coast of the African continent, Morocco has long been a popular holiday destination for European and local holidaymakers and it seems that the country has done well enough without worrying too much about other markets. “We have to think carefully about targeting the Arab market,” says Taoufik Madih, director general, ALM Tours, a Marrakech DMC specialising in incentives, congress travel and FITs. “It’s a very interesting market. The problem with all Moroccan inbound agencies [is that] we are always looking to the easy markets. The easy market for us is Europe,” he admits. Spain is just a 40-minute flight from Morocco, making it a hugely popular destination for Spanish tourists and companies, but the longer flying time from most Middle East destinations might deter some people from making the trip, especially when you consider that trendier destination like Bangkok are only four hours away. “Since the opening of the agency, we spread our areas of interest so we don’t depend on only one market; now is the time to open up more markets,” says Madih, who lists China, Brazil and Argentina as other markets with huge potential for tourism to Morocco. “We don’t understand why [the Arab market] prefers to go to the same places all the time, and places that are so close; Egypt, Syria or Lebanon for example,” he says. “Some people don’t make the difference between the different Arabic countries; they think that coming to Morocco is the same as going to Egypt, but that is a mistake. This country has so many specific points of interest. He says that corporate travel only represents around 20% of business for his company, since Casablanca is the favoured destination for business travel. “But things are changing now because Marrakech is becoming just as important as Casablanca,” he explains. “The UAE has a lot of projects in and around Marrakech, and when those projects materialise, I think Marrakech will become one of the most important destinations in the world.” Within the ancient walls of the medina, hidden among the snaking side streets and alleyways, visitors can find an alternative form of accommodation that offers a tranquil escape from the busy streets. A riad is a converted town house, with rooms based around a central courtyard and swimming pool. Within the cool walls, guests can relax and experience a taste of traditional city life. Marrakech Riads has six riads in Marrakech and two more in the city of Fes. According to Nadia Asri, the company’s head of marketing and communications, although riads are popular with European visitors, the Middle East market is not so enthusiastic. “The percentage of visitors from the Middle East is very weak, as we understand that visitors prefer to stay in the hotels [outside of the medina], because they don’t like to walk in the medina,” she explains. However, as well as Europeans looking for a leisurely getaway, the business market is beginning to see the appeal of a riad, says Asri. The company recently hosted a small business group in one of the properties in Marrakech, who were seeking a unique alternative to a typical hotel stay and meeting destination. Asri says the lack of information and awareness of riads in the Middle East means that visitor numbers will remain the same, while the rest of the city grows. The most famous hotel in the city is the world renowned Hotel Mamounia, opened in 1923 and described by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as “the most beautiful place in the world”. The landmark hotel is currently closed for extensive refurbishment, including the addition of a 4500m² spa. It is expected to reopen in the second half of 2007. Outside of the medina, the European part of Marrakech has numerous five-star hotels that benefit from a small but lucrative amount of trade from the Middle East. Close by, Le Meridien N’Fis benefits from year round attention from both the business and leisure markets. The 277-room hotel has 11 ambassadorial suites, and one presidential suite, four conference rooms and a spa. “Let’s say maybe 10% of visitors come from the Middle East; it’s too low,” says Omar Benjelloun, director of sales at the hotel. Maybe in other hotels you would find more,” he says, adding that the marginal 10% are mainly from the UAE and Saudi; the only two markets with direct flights to Morocco. ||**||Of all the towns in all the world|~||~||~|In Casablanca, the major five-star hotels view the arrival of new competition from other international chains as an exciting challenge. “Actually, 11% of our visitors come from Gulf countries,” says Marc Fischer, director of sales and marketing at the recently refurbished Hyatt Regency Casablanca. “That percentage is made up of visitors from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE and Bahrain, and probably 60% of those visitors are corporate clients.” According to Fischer, 80% of the bookings that come from Arab countries are directed through local Moroccan travel agents. He says that the facilities and service at the Hyatt are ideally suited to the Arab market, and that staff are “briefed in discretion”. “Our ability to respond to unusual requests is something that makes us a good choice for the Arab market; whether is a last minute request for a private jet for a day or whatever; we can arrange it for them.” Fischer also reveals that Hyatt has been considering developing a property in Marrakech. “Casablanca is not the primary destination in Morocco, but there is great opportunity in coming years to develop the sector and improve the city. It’s certainly a destination that needs to be developed further,” he adds.||**||Driving capital|~|Riad.gif|~|Staying in a riad is a popular option for travellers seeking a haven to escape the hustle and bustle of Marrakech’s busy medina.|~|In the north of the country, Rabat is the home to all of Morocco’s embassies, and the official capital of the nation. According to Olivier de Kermel, general manager, Hilton Rabat, the number of hotel guests from the Middle East has accounted for 11.69% of the total visitor mix since the beginning of the year. He says the majority of those come from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain, and that the number of people coming from the UAE has shown a particularly high level of growth in the last few years. The Hilton Rabat offers a wide range of facilities to its clientele; its 269 rooms include 27 suites, all of which have a private balcony. The hotel has vast conference and banqueting facilities; 15 meeting rooms, which can accommodate groups of four to 1100 people for all types of events, and outdoor functions can be organised in the gardens or in traditional Caidal Tents in the grounds, which Kermel says is ideal for MICE groups in particular. By 2012, Morocco hopes to welcome10 million tourists per year, spread between the major places of interest; Casablanca, Marrakech, Rabat, and Agadir. During this period, more major hotel chains are set to open their doors to the international market that feeds on Morocco. InterContinental has revealed plans for a property in Casablanca, as has Accor, which will open a Sofitel and an Ibis hotel by 2008. Meanwhile, Golden Tulip has recently opened a new hotel in Dar Bouazza, 20km along the Atlantic coast from Casablanca. The hotel consists of 30 luxurious guest rooms, 12 ethnic themed suites, and 44 fully equipped residential apartments. The hotel will also have 700m² of conference facilities, as well as exposition galleries, ateliers, a museum of contemporary art, and a wellness and spa centre. As Etihad’s marketing strategies get into full swing, raising awareness of all that Morocco has to offer, and other carriers look to the country as a potential honey-pot, the North African destination will undoubtedly become a prime destination for both business and leisure travel, and continue to be a refreshing alternative for MICE groups.||**||THE SALES PITCH|~||~||~|GETTING THERE: Etihad Airways: four weekly. Emirates: daily. Egypt Air: nine weekly. Qatar Airways: six flights weekly. Royal Air Maroc: from Dubai, daily; from Jeddah, eight weekly; from Cairo, 10 weekly. Saudi Arabian Airlines: from Jeddah, four weekly. Turkish Airlines: six per week, reducing to five on September 8. SAMPLE PACKAGES: Etihad Holidays: Weekend nights at the Royal Manssour Meridien, or the Hyatt Regency, are subject to an AED 65–70 ($18-19) discount from September 4 to 21. Hyatt Regency Casablanca: is offering a special Ramadan promotional rate of MAR 1600 ($185) per person per night for Arab nationals. Offer available from September 23 to October 25. Kanoo Travel: a three night package in Casablanca, including bed and breakfast accommodation in a three-star hotel and return economy airfare with Emirates, costs AED 2650 ($721) per person, based on two adults travelling. Taxes not included. Valid until September 15. Le Meridien N’Fis: has special golfing rates available; ideal for short break incentives trips or longer leisure holidays for small groups or couples. Packages include accommodation in a superior room, daily buffet breakfast, one dinner at Menzeh Restaurant (excluding beverages) return transfers from Marrakech airport, and daily transfers to and from the golf course. A seven-night package costs MAD 11,410 ($ 1314) per person for single occupancy, or MAD 7910 ($911) per person for double occupancy. Non-golfers pay MAD 5160 ($594). For a three-night stay, double occupancy rooms are MAD 3840 ($442) per person; while single occupancy costs MAD 5640 ($650) per person, and non-golfers pay MAD 2740 ($316). Sharaftravel: a six night package in Marrakech, including bed and breakfast accommodation in the three-star Ibis Moussafir Hotel, return economy airfare and taxes with Royal Air Maroc, and return airport transfers costs AED 4370 ($1190). SELLING TIPS: Morocco is an Arabic speaking country that boasts a pleasant year-round climate; a great alternative to other well-trodden regional destinations like Egypt and Lebanon. Bargain hunters can spend all day haggling over hand-made rugs and fine handcrafted products over a cup of mint tea in the labyrinthine souks of Marrakech’s medina. Trips to the desert, the Atlas Mountains and the Atlantic coast mean visitors can experience virtually all weather conditions. GETTING AROUND: There are around 10 trains from Casa Voyageurs station in Casablanca to Marrakech daily. First class cabins are air-conditioned and a buffet trolley provides refreshments during the three and a half hour journey. A return ticket in a first class carriage costs around $25. The cities of Morocco are cluttered with armies of “petit taxis”, small vehicles ideally sized to swerve in and out of traffic and avoid oncoming motorcycles and horse and carts. Finding one with a metre can be tricky, so make sure you agree on a price before you set off if it is an un-metred taxi.||**||

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