Dual speed: A development strategy is in place to attract both large-scale and niche tourism visitors

With 200 km of Mediterranean coastline, mountainous areas, thermal springs and a desert oasis, the Oriental region is not short of tourist attractions. The regional development initiative has outlined plans to build its tourism potential at several levels, targeting different markets. These include the construction of large-scale, luxury beachside resorts in Saïdia and Marchica, efforts to increase capacity in cities such as Oujda and Berkane, and the development of small-scale rural tourism, which will focus on the region’s unique cultural identity and environment.

The Oriental region had 8750 hotel beds in 2013. The coastal province of Berkane accounts for more than half of total capacity and, of the 5264 beds in the province, 3170 are in the Saïdia beach resort complex. The remainder of hotel capacity is primarily split between Oujda (2400 beds) and Nador (923 beds). A sprinkling of hotels are available in the more rural provinces, including 107 beds in Figuig and 60 in Driouch, but facilities are otherwise relatively limited.

ARRIVALS: The medium-term goal is to equip the region with 120,000 beds by 2025; however, this would require a significant acceleration in hotel building, which the local market may not be able to accommodate. Yet tourist arrivals have risen steadily in recent years, in line with the construction of infrastructure. The total number of arrivals jumped 62% from 93,940 in 2008 to 152,143 in 2013. This is down from a peak of over 183,000 in 2012, which was partially spurred by the expansion of the Saïdia resort complex.

The number of foreign arrivals more than doubled over the same period, from 21,000 in 2008 to 51,700 in 2013. Spain represents the largest market for foreign arrivals, followed by Portugal, France and Belgium. The regional tourism market is dominated by domestic tourists, who accounted for two-thirds of arrivals in the Oriental region in 2013. Yet in terms of the number of nights spent in hotels in the region, domestic and foreign tourists are roughly on a par, with 230,900 and 233,300 nights in 2013, respectively.

Given the successive waves of immigration from the Oriental region to Europe in search of work, Moroccans living abroad (marocains résidants à l’étranger, MREs) also represent an important market for tourism. According to statistics from the Oriental Regional Tourism Delegation, 2217 MREs returned to the region in 2013. However, as many returnees use accommodations other than hotels, unofficial estimates put this number much higher, at over 100,000 MREs per year, mainly concentrated in the summer months.

BEACH RESORT: Under the regional development plan, much future tourism revenue is expected to be driven by large-scale beach resorts. The main focus has so far been on the development of a 700-ha resort in Saïdia, 60 km north of Oujda. The resort was the first of six projects to be developed under Morocco’s seaside tourism strategy, Plan Azur. To date, only one other Plan Azur project has been launched, the Lixus resort near Larache in north-west Morocco.

The scope of the Saïdia resort is ambitious. Ultimately, it is slated to have a capacity of 30,000 beds, divided among nine four- and five-star hotels and 3000 residential villas. Plans also include three 18-hole golf courses, a 1350-berth recreational marina, a water park, and a network of amenities including restaurants and business and commercial space.

The resort opened officially in 2009, and it currently counts three five-star hotels, with a combined capacity of 3170 beds. Two are managed by Spanish brands, Be Live Hotels and IBEROSTAR, while the third and largest hotel, Oriental Bay Beach Golf & Spa, was developed by Moroccan chain Atlas Hospitality. Thus far, one golf course and the first 750-berth tranche of the marina have been completed.

Saïdia has succeeded in attracting large numbers of visitors and boosting revenue in the tourism sector overall. Occupancy rates in the three existing hotels average 65-66% during the four-month high season in summer. Tour operators and travel agencies in Europe have helped drive European traffic to the resort, beginning with tourists from traditional markets in France, Belgium and Spain. More recently, the charter flight routes have brought in an increasing number of tourists from countries such as Russia and Poland as well. However, despite these efforts, domestic tourists continue to make up a significant proportion of visitors coming to Saïdia.

The project has faced challenges, largely due to its launch during the height of the economic downturn and eurozone crisis. The company set up to manage the project, Société d’Aménagement de Saïdia, was a joint venture between Morocco’s Addoha and Spanish developer Fadesa. The Spanish partner saw its financing dry up during the crisis, which put the project on hold for several years. Frequent work stoppages have since created challenges for hotels in the zone, including irregular water and electricity supply.

NEW BUILDING: In 2012 the project was taken over by domestic firms, which helped get the resort back on track. A new management company, Société de Développement de Saïdia (SDS), was formalised in 2012, 66% owned by Moroccan developer Caisse de Dépots et de Géstion and 34% by the Moroccan Fund for Tourism Development. With financing re-injected, the resort should progress in the coming years.

In February 2014, Spain’s Meliá chain signed an agreement with SDS to manage three new hotels in the zone, which are set to open in 2016. The facilities – hotels overlooking the beach and the golf course, as well as a luxury holiday apartment complex – will have a total capacity of 740 rooms and 2000 beds. Construction of the sites is expected to require an investment of nearly Dh1bn (€89m).

In addition, a €28m project to improve the city’s sanitation and drainage was completed in 2013. Some 38 km of pipes were put in place to remove waste and rain water from the resort, the town of Saïdia and the seaside corniche. The final step, construction of a water purification plant with a capacity of 20,400 cu metres per day, is scheduled for completion in 2014.

MARCHICA: The region is set to receive a second large-scale tourism project: the redevelopment of the 4000-ha Marchica lagoon near the port of Nador. The project, announced in 2009, is still its initial phase but is moving forward quickly. The project’s developer, Marchica Med Development Company, was established in 2008 with equal stakes held by the state and the Hassan II Fund. Plans include the development of seven independent, eco-friendly towns in the lagoon area; each tourist town is set to be developed by a dedicated company, which will rely heavily on input from private investors. Marchica is expected to require a total investment of Dh46bn (€4.1bn) and to have a capacity of 101,200 beds, in a setting that both commercialises and preserves the natural surroundings. Said Zarrou, the managing director of Marchica Development Agency, told OBG, “The Marchica development plan is following a new partnership structure known as Concerted Development Sectors, which allows the creation of joint-ventures between the development agency, landowners or investors.”

The first tourist town to be developed, Cité d’ Alayoun, is currently under construction on a 45-ha area. The site includes a 370-room hotel, 650 villas, 2230 apartments and two marinas, originally scheduled for completion in late 2014. In addition, Marchica Med estimates that some 75% of the lagoon area has been rehabilitated. A nine-hole golf course and golf academy are the final stages of completion, which developers hope will attract visitors year-round, rather than just during the summer months.

RURAL ATTRACTIONS: The development of niche tourism is meant to capitalise on the area’s diverse environment, create employment and encourage circuit tourism that will bring visitors to seaside resorts in the off-season. The Regional Tourism Delegation has identified 32 sites that are well adapted to the development of niche and ecotourism, and the rural road network has been considerably improved.

Yet there is a strong need for tourism infrastructure, including hotels, guesthouses and traditional Moroccan riads, as well as professional training. The tourism delegation has outlined €3.3m in high-value, niche tourism projects between 2013 and 2018. Public authorities have set the goal of training 130,000 tourism workers by 2020 through a combination of professional development and higher education programmes, to support sector growth across the board.

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The Report: Morocco 2014

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