As policymakers and private stakeholders join forces to chart a new path for the tourism sector, more emphasis is likely to put on the development of niche offerings. Several of these have high-value potential and the ability to attract new segments of international travellers. Niche tourism is the base of the sector’s Vision 2020 plan, which highlights six tourism categories. Ecotourism, health tourism, and meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) are segments that have allowed several countries around the world to expand their offering, while other activities such as golf and maritime sports can be positioned as more unique options for travellers. Given Morocco’s diversity in terms of geography, climate, urban infrastructure and rural destinations, many of these segments are likely to help the tourism sector grow.
Acquiring information from which to make decisions will be key. In December 2019 the Moroccan National Tourist Office (Office National Marocain du Tourisme, ONMT) launched a call for tenders for a study on foreign tourists’ demand in Morocco, comparing this with competing cities in the region and working to improve tourist arrivals from target countries. The last such study was completed in 2012. The 2020 study will focus on specific niche products of the country’s tourism offer, such as golf, nautical sports, wellness and nature/adventure.
Golfing is becoming a more common reason to visit Morocco. With pleasant weather year-round and an especially mild winter, the sport is now a key focus point for tourism authorities. Morocco was named the best golf destination in Africa by the World Golf Awards organisation in 2015 and 2017, with Marrakech offering 13 courses around the city. Morocco is competing with nearby golfing hotspots in Portugal and Spain, which are especially attractive to European players during the winter. In an event that is sure to boost its attractiveness to golfers, in September 2019 a deal with signed with the Professional Golf Association (PGA) to host one tournament every year for five years, beginning in 2020. In late January 2020 Marrakech hosted the second tournament of the PGA TOUR Champions season at the Samanah Golf Club.
Targeting golfers is key to increasing the tourism sector’s economic weight. According to Hamid Bentahar, president of the Regional Council for Tourism (Conseil Régional de Tourisme, CRT) in Marrakech, while an average tourist will spend €1000 per trip, a golf tourist’s expenditure can be four times that amount. The city receives an estimated 40,000 golf tourists annually, according to the Marrakech CRT. Beyond the sport itself, in October 2019 Marrakech hosted the International Golf Travel Market, an industry event covering the golf travel segment.
The segment is likely to get a further boost from a joint campaign to be launched in April 2020 by the ONMT, the Royal Moroccan Golf Federation and the International Association of Golf Tour Operators that will run for three years. The campaign aims to raise the international profile of the kingdom’s golf infrastructure and facilities.
Morocco also has several assets to support the MICE segment. Casablanca, the country’s economic capital, is the top destination for business visitors and easily accessible from the majority of European capitals. The Mohamed V International Airport in Casablanca already handles roughly 40% of the kingdom’s air traffic and welcomed 10m passengers in 2019. Through flag carrier Royal Air While an average tourist will spend €1000 per trip, a golf tourist’s expenditure can be four times that amount Maroc, the airport connects to four cities in the US and launched a direct link to Beijing in January 2020, which operates three times per week.
Furthermore, the city’s hotel infrastructure is expanding gradually, with the total number of rooms rising by an annual average of 6% during the 2013-17 period. The number of hotel nights sold in Casablanca has also been rising steadily in recent years, growing from 1.66m in 2012 to 2.05m in 2018, when the city accounted for 9% of all hotel nights in the kingdom, according to the Ministry of Tourism, Air Transport, Handicrafts and Social Economy.
Expanding the weight that MICE tourism carries in Morocco’s biggest city will also depend on its ability to encourage longer stays by business visitors, promoting the idea to come a few days before or stay after a meeting or exhibition. Casablanca’s restaurant and shopping offer has expanded considerably over the years, with the city now hosting an array of international retailers.
Marrakech, for its part, is vying for a bigger slice of the MICE segment, which typically accounts for a small portion of the city’s tourist activity, despite being the kingdom’s top destination for international travellers. While Marrakech has hosted the 2016 UN Climate Change Conference and other international events, segment stakeholders in the city are anticipating a boost with the construction of a new exhibition and convention centre, which was under consideration by local authorities in late 2019. Moreover, the city’s tourism operators are joining together and began working to establish the Marrakech Convention Bureau in October 2019 to channel efforts into coordinated promotion of Marrakech as a MICE destination.
With landscapes ranging from desert expanses to snowy mountains and an extensive Atlantic Ocean coastline, Morocco is well suited for the further development of ecotourism. The kingdom also boasts nine national parks that can attract international visitors. Marrakech had over 40 tour agencies specialising in adventure and nature travel as of late 2019, underlining the great potential to sell excursions outside the city to urban visitors.
In tandem with nature tourism, Morocco has been able to position itself as an international destination for a variety of maritime activities. For example, surfers from Europe and other regions of the world flock to Morocco’s beaches during the winter. This swell in visitor numbers has long been visible in places like Safi and Taghazout, which host extensive beachfront hospitality infrastructure to cater for surfers. Between the two locations and near Essaouira, Sidi Kaouki has also emerged as a popular location for surfers and kite surfers, with a number of small eco-lodges and family managed guesthouses being established. Further south, in Tiznit, the Greenwave Ecolodge opened on 2300 sq meters of land in May 2018 to cater for tourists looking to surf, fish and paraglide.
Along other parts of the Moroccan coast, cruise tourism has the potential to add visitors to cities such as Tangier, Agadir and Casablanca, which host modern port infrastructure. To date the cruise segment has not been a strategic focus for tourism authorities, and although the overall number of tourists to the country has expanded considerably in the past decade, the number of cruise tourists docking at the kingdom’s ports decreased at an average annual rate of 5.7% between 2009 and 2018, according to the ONMT. More recently, however, the trend seems to be reversing. Agadir saw cruise tourist arrivals grow from 93,000 in 2017 to 108,000 in 2018, while Tangier experienced a rise from 24,000 to 31,000 over the same years.
More established niches also present interesting opportunities for the sector to grow over the coming years. Medical tourism has been an active business in the kingdom since the 1960s, but as the country becomes increasingly linked with sub-Saharan African economies, more visitors from the continent are looking at Morocco for various types of medical procedures. The kingdom receives about 500,000 medical tourists per year who are attracted by the affordability of the clinics relative to European countries. Plastic surgery is one of the most popular reasons for medical tourism, with clinics in Rabat, Casablanca, Agadir, Marrakech and Tangier serving foreign patients.
Channelling resources into a wide array of niche segments is likely to support the tourism sector in diversifying its income sources. At the moment the sector remains highly dependent on a small number of destinations, with Marrakech, Agadir and Casablanca accounting for about 70% of all hotel nights in the country in 2018. However, by expanding access to maritime activities, ecotourism, MICE and other offerings, the kingdom will be able to disperse growing tourist traffic more evenly across its territory and deepen the industry’s economic footprint.
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