Is it safe to visit Morocco? Thoughts from Marrakech

Is it safe to visit Morocco? Thoughts from Marrakech

I wasn’t fortunate enough to travel when I was young. As a family, our annual trip to Tenby to stay in a caravan for a week was as exotic as it got, and I was always jealous when friends came back from a week in Florida or Italy, full of stories about sweltering hot days, swimming pools and roller-coasters. I loved our holidays to west Wales, and my parents worked really hard to make them possible, but I knew that as soon as I had my own income, I’d do my damnedest to make up for my lack of air-miles. In the last 12 years, I’ve made a pretty good start.

Over the last decade or so, I’ve experienced lots of different types of ‘travel’ and they’ve all taught me different things – about myself and about the world.

Travel: the only thing you buy that makes you richer

At 18, my first ‘sun holiday’ with the girls in Gran Canaria showed me that I loved being in hot, dry climates as much as I thought I would.

Two trips to Oktoberfest in my early 20s taught me that a really great campsite is almost as good as a hotel, and that I love meeting people from all over the world (and drinking beer with them). To be fair, living in London for 5 years taught me this, too.

Backpacking in Asia at 26 first introduced me to food as a gateway to another culture, and to the art of travelling on a shoestring (I think my BF and I managed to make £1500 last for about 10 weeks).

Heading to the USA for a friend’s wedding in 2015 meant that I could finally try out the rollercoasters in Orlando. But I soon realised that New Orleans and New York were a million times more interesting (for an adult, anyway).

Staying at a 5* resort in Borneo at age 30 gave me a taste for combining luxury with breathtaking nature and wildlife. The three days I spent in Dubai before that, taught me that fancy hotels and good shopping alone aren’t enough to keep me interested for long.

Lately, with the arrival of Air BnB, I’ve discovered the joy of hopping over to a European city for a weekend, packing in 48 hours of sightseeing and stuffing my face. Thanks to cheap flights and affordable self-catered apartments, in the last two years I’ve crossed Lisbon, Madrid and Amsterdam off my list.

Now, my most recent trip – to Morocco – has given me another new perspective; the belief that if we all traveled a little more and jumped to conclusions a little less, the world would be a much better place.

To visit or not to visit: Morocco

When I told my mum I’d booked a week away in Morocco she immediately scowled. With the world the way it is these days, she didn’t want me travelling to an Arab country where I might put myself in unnecessary danger. I wondered if she was right.

Since arriving in Morocco I have thought about what my mum said a lot. I’ve thought about how much my mum would LOVE the food here, but hate the blistering heat (it’s 37 degrees as I write this from my balcony). I’ve thought about how she’ll never get to experience the chaos of the souks, which although overwhelming, is also fascinating and weirdly addictive. I’ve thought about the sights and smells and flavours I would have missed out on if I’d listened to the worries about my safety that quite a few people expressed, and taken them on board.

 Jemaa el-Fnaa square, Morocco

On what was my second day in Morocco, 60 people were gunned down at a country music festival in Las Vegas. Our taxi driver translated the radio report to us as we drove across Morocco to visit the Ouzoud waterfalls. He was shaking his head the whole time, visibly upset, and said “if the man is from an Arab country, the media will say it is Islamic terrorism.” It turns out the man who shot all of those people was white. The media – and the indeed, the president – have yet to use the word terrorism in any reports I have seen so far. Since terrorism is defined as “the use of intentionally indiscriminate violence as a means to create terror, or fear, to achieve a political, religious or ideological aim” it will be interesting to see if the narrative changes should a motive be identified in the coming weeks.

Understanding Morocco

As always on holiday, I have been reading a lot. Firstly a book called “In the Labrynth of Dreams and Bazaars” by Walter M Weiss, which in each chapter gives a potted history of a different area of Morocco (thanks for the loan, Liz)! I’ve also been reading my trusty Lonely Planet guide. As well using this for restaurant recommendations, I’ve been paying particular attention to the back pages, which include loads of information about culture, climate, history, economy and wildlife.

Through these books I have discovered that Morocco has a history of tolerance. There has always been a mixture of faiths here, and in WW2, 250,000 Jewish people were given protection by the King of Morocco. He did not send a single one to the concentration camps despite Morocco being under French protectorate.

Morocco was long considered one of the most politically stable – and therefore safe – countries in Africa. This is why the bombing in Marrakech in 2011 hit them so hard. It took place in the main square, killing 17 people, most of whom were French tourists. That attack followed a similar bombing in 2003 in Casablanca, which left 45 dead.

Both attacks, combined with an increasingly persistent western narrative that all Arab countries are implicitly linked with terrorism, have damaged the tourism industry here in Morocco. In a country where 2/3 graduates are unemployed and tourism is one of the most important sectors in the Moroccan economy, the effect can’t be underestimated.

In light of all of this, I have been reflecting on my own experiences of Morocco. Throughout my week here I have eaten wonderful food, experienced amazing weather, received warm hospitality and seen  breathtaking natural beauty. I have spoken to local taxi drivers, the sellers in the souks, and tour guides – all of whom have been multilingual, funny and warm. I know when it comes to the men in the souks that that isn’t always the case, but I haven’t experienced any of the heckling I was expecting. I’ve also laughed my ass off trying to communicate with one of the hotel’s Berber drivers who can’t speak a word of English, but smiles and laughs and is friendly nonetheless.

My understanding before I arrived here was that Marrakech was a very conservative city, but I’ve been told by locals from our hotel that there’s no real need to cover up anymore as times have changed. Whilst I still covered my shoulders and knees in the souks, I haven’t in the restaurants, or at the hotel where all of the women here are in bikinis.

Most soberingly, last night, I chatted with the graduate Moroccan men and women who work at my hotel, and discovered that they work 12 hour days, 6 days a week, for just €300 a month. These are some of the better jobs around, open only to those with good people skills and the ability to speak multiple languages. It’s a tough life.

The verdict: So should you visit Morocco?

The economy in Morocco is pretty dependent on western tourism, and should you choose to visit, you’ll be helping provide an income for families across the country and so the majority of people you will meet will be pleased to see you. A select few locals will be surly or rude of course, as they have been when I have visited Germany, Thailand, Paris and North Wales (I’m joking on the last one!) Similarly, whilst as a feminist a lot of Morocco’s historic and cultural attitudes to women may feel uncomfortable, I’ve had to cover myself in the churches of Rome and the monasteries of Vietnam, and been grilled by locals on why I am unmarried and ‘out drinking with the girls’ in Portugal and Greece. The issues I have faced as a female tourist here in Morocco are no different to the ones faced in countless other non-Arab holiday destinations every day.

I wanted to share this post in case anyone else has any reservations about visiting Morocco; my outlook is that if you are comfortable visiting Barcelona, London, Manchester and Paris – all places where terror attacks aimed at tourists have taken place – then I honestly see no reason at all for giving Morocco a miss. Whilst it is super important to stay safe when travelling (and I understand my mum worrying of course), I think it’s imperative in the face of events in Morocco 2003 and 2011 – and indeed, Las Vegas 2017 –  that we keep travelling, and keep trusting people. To stay open minded is to not let the darkness win.

My advice then? Book that ticket, jump on that plane and decide how you feel about Morocco by experiencing it first hand. I’m sure you’ll absolutely love it.

Good morning Morocco! That's the #Atlas Mountains in the distance. Wowzer.

A post shared by HungryCityHippy 🍽 (@hungrycityhippy) on

5 tips for staying safe in Marrakech

By following these simple steps, you can be sure to have an enjoyable and perfectly safe experience in the mad, hot, chaotic city that is Marrakech.

  1. Cover arms and legs (to the knee) in the souks: we saw plenty of female tourists who didn’t do this and were completely fine, but to avoid any unwanted attention, it’s a good idea to cover up anyway.
  2. Don’t follow any unlicensed ‘guides’ or ‘helpful’ locals: there are some who claim there is a certain kind of market / seller on for ‘one day only’ – they work on commission from the shop you end up at, where the keeper will do a very hard sell.
  3. Don’t get into any unlicensed / unmarked taxis: look for the official ones who can also show you a tarrif card before you set off.
  4. Be polite: haggling is part of the culture so there’s no need to get aggy about it. If you can’t agree a price just walk away with a firm but friendly “no thank you”.
  5. Avoid obvious displays of wealth: leave the pricey watch, flashy jewellery and expensive gadgets at home, or packed out of site in a secure bag. It’s safer, but also a lot more respectful in a country where many people survive on a very meagre income.

Have you been to Morocco or Marrakech? What did you think? Have you any more safe travel tips? Let me know in the comments ☺️

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3 Comments

  1. October 9, 2017 / 4:35 pm

    This was such an interesting read Jane – I think you’re right though, recent attacks show they can happen anywhere so keeping yourself as safe as possible when travelling is the best we can do.

    I’ve not been to Morocco but funnily enough in Orlando’s Epcot there’s a mini Marrakech and it makes me want to experience the real thing every time!

    • HungryCityHippy
      October 9, 2017 / 7:09 pm

      Thanks Jamie 🙂 I bet you’d take the most atmospheric photos on Morocco – far better than mine! x

      • October 9, 2017 / 9:08 pm

        Too kind Jane, must say the outfit/pot coordination is on point in the first photo though – love that!

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