MARRAKECH, Morocco -- The North African country with the fastest growth rate in tourism sent out a clear message that its own private sector will now play a more prominent role in developing its all-important travel industry, indicating that it is ready to use expertise acquired over several decades of steady growth to spearhead new initiatives that would put a large number of unknown sub-Saharan countries on the map.
Traditional dancers entertain MTM attendants, in efforts to drum up interest in the region.
Supported by Morocco's King Mohammed VI and inaugurated by the newly appointed Minister of Tourism, the Moroccan Travel Market (MTM) was organized by the Rahal Group, one of the country's most respected firms with interests in the entertainment and catering industries, as well as a budding interest in tourism.
A first for the MTM, confidence in the country's potential was underlined both by the number of those exhibiting at the event and further stressed by the thousands of enthusiastic travel agents, tour operators and international investors, the latter being partially responsible for the huge increase in tourist-related construction. While the Moroccan tourism sector does welcome a massive increase in foreign investment, this private initiative showcasing the diversity of its wares was undoubtedly intended to stake out its territory.
MTM President Abdel Karim Rahal referred to the event's success as a result of both Morocco's own natural resources and a greater global perspective.
"We have a wide variety of terrain from mountains, forests and deserts to beaches and modern cities," he explained. "We can offer hunting, fishing and eco-tourism as well as the more traditional beach holiday or cultural visits."
Rahal went on to lay out a vision for the future of pan-continental African tourism that would benefit from a network of interlinked groups. Each would have its own tourist destinations while still offering the proximity to its neighbor's marvels.
"We here in Morocco have shown that it is possible to achieve high visitor numbers. By making a north-south bridge we believe that tourists from Europe will discover virtually unknown areas of Africa," he said.
Rahal also stressed that King Mohammed VI was taking a keen personal interest in tourism-related developments and that all major decisions were made at the level of the palace.
This new Maghrebi perspective was apparent from the series of big white tents housing the exhibition center evoking the sense of north Africa. The main entrance was lined with scores of chanting and drumming traditional musicians and the glistening points of the tents echoed the snowy Atlas mountain peaks in the background.
Regardless, it is inside where the MTM revealed the international nature of its tourism sector by offering more than 250 exhibition stands ranging from Moroccan spas and specialist trekking organizations to exhibitors from Cameroon, Madagascar and Mauritania. It is hoped that the MTM will stimulate a more coordinated approach to tourism among Morocco's neighboring states to the south.
With India also exhibiting many of its colorful and appreciated holiday destinations, Marrakech remained the focus of the event. Investors pointed out that the main holiday property market moved outside the city, along roads leading to the mountains or away to the coast. Developers there build either detached riads in their own grounds or big Moroccan-style villas, houses and apartments on large complexes, usually focusing on a golf course.
Two years ago, the Association of British Travel Agents recognized the growing importance of the region by holding its annual convention in Marrakech. Alarmed by the drop in their own tourism market, the Spanish attended the MTM in droves, keen to invest and conduct business.
Stung by the fall-out from money-laundering mayors, land-grabbing developers and coastal over-pricing and over-supply, Spain is suffering from having its confidence dented and its property market brought to a near standstill. Prices on the Iberian peninsula generally are rising by five percent, only just above the rate of inflation. With April's stock market correction and now rumors of coastal demolition, the impression given is that Spain is in a negative loop.
Moroccan prices rose by 15 to 20 percent last year and the tourism push is also seeing secondary cities like Fez and Tangier benefiting from both large corporate investment and fledgling foreign individual interest. The contraction in its neighbor's market contrasts starkly with the building explosion being encouraged by King Mohammed VI, who decided some years back that tourism was the future for his kingdom.
Aiming to increase visitor numbers to 10 million by 2010, he has been establishing development incentives along Morocco's impressive Atlantic coastline, as well as inland. This ambition has been boosted by the European Open Skies policy that has seen low-cost flight operators opening new routes into the country.
Currently Marrakech airport is being extended to cope with this new influx. Morocco has already been dubbed the new Dubai and developers from the United Arab Emirates have recently committed to long term, billion-dollar investments that would bring luxurious lifestyle resorts in and around Morocco's most popular destination.
Nevertheless, Marrakech's market is underpinned by domestic demand from wealthy Moroccans in Casablanca and Rabat searching for weekend homes, and not solely reliant on tourists, as the coastal resorts are. Developments around Marrakech are top end, aimed at a sophisticated buyer who is happy to abandon being a pebble throw from a beach for centuries of history, color and the choice of golf, skiing in the Atlas mountains or meandering round the souk.
Inevitably showcase seminars presented at the MTM considered the need to balance economic growth with environmental protection. Several key speakers voiced concern over sustainable development and the impact of such a huge amount of construction, while questioning whether it could be sustained without having a negative impact on water supply and global warming. However according to one British tour operator visiting the MTM, the exhibition enhanced the notion of travel to distant cultures as a highly creative pursuit.
"You won't find the mundane, trivial or amateurish here," he said. "This steers us away completely from the idea that it is foreigners who are running the country's tourism industry."
It seems that the timing was just right for the MTM. With South Africa's Indaba Travel Market concentrating solely on southern Africa and another of Africa's premier destinations, Kenya, overwhelmed by tribal conflict, Morocco appeared on the international scene at just the right moment.
With some of the sharpest architectural designs for new tourist complexes on display, the exhibition was a forceful reminder that the number of foreign tourists who visited Morocco last year topped 8 million, reflecting the reality of achieving the aim of 10 million visitors by 2010.
It also seems that The Moroccan Travel Market will become the most influential travel market in Africa and that neighboring countries will share the benefits. E-mail to a friend
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