Much of the Eastern Region’s history was founded on the variety of its attractions, which range from sandy beaches to desert oases. Now authorities are keen to create niche tourism projects that help preserve the natural environment while sustaining local communities through low-impact tourist inflow. Emulating the success of other sustainable tourism ventures created across regions of the kingdom, notably in the Atlas Mountains or the desert area of Ouarzazate, the Oriental is seeking to sustain local traditions and expand the economic growth to its isolated, southern-most provinces via tourism. Although Morocco has several established ecotourism circuits that are internationally recognised, these rarely involve the Oriental region, due to its distance from other tourist hotspots and the lack of sufficient promotion over the years.
STAYING LOCAL: In a 2012 report analysing the Eastern Region’s economic potential, the Oujda Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Services (Chambre de Commerce d’Industrie et de Services d’Oujda, CCISO) underlined the potential ecotourism projects based around the desert and its rural communities as effective ways to promote growth, as well as to encourage rural populations to stay. In the report, the chamber highlighted the initial potential to draw 1000 to 5000 visitors a year. These numbers are ostensibly small compared with the potential of the Mediterranean coast resort projects to the north, but the region’s natural setting encourages the development of niche products aimed at higher-end travellers from Europe and the US.
MEETING CHALLENGES: However, existing infrastructure is insufficient to accommodate tourism growth. Although small compared to the huge undertakings of the Eastern Region’s two beach resorts of Saïdia and Marchica, the government is already channelling investment to the rural areas away from the Mediterranean. In 2012, Agence de l’Oriental announced a plan to invest Dh28m (€2.49m) in rural tourism. The main priority of this investment is to rehabilitate existent lodges in rural areas, as well to build new units. Part of this investment is also being directed at training for lodge owners, and will be implemented up to 2015.
According to Amine Abdellaoui, the regional tourism delegate, the big challenge is to equip the rural areas across the region with quality accommodation. “The city of Oujda has 2000 to 2500 hotel beds, but other provinces do not have many beds, or at least, not a lot of tourism-qualified hotel capacity” he told OBG.
TRAIN TO BOUARFA: The first niche tourism project in the region is being designed using a railway that was originally built in colonial times. The 350-km line linking Oujda to Bouarfa, 108 km south of the Figuig Oasis, is the remains of an ambitious project to create a railway connection between the Mediterranean coast and Niger. The Errachidia-based travel agency Suprateam Travel initially tested the railway line as a desert train concept with 700 tourists. “The desert train pilot project has had good results and it has the potential to develop into a very distinctive tourism product. However, we require a better train for this, it needs to be adapted for tourism travel,” said Abdellaoui. “Nowadays, all we have is one from the National Office for Railways of Morocco, so the government might have to put out a tender to get someone to supply a tourism wagon.”
A total of 32 places of interest have been identified as good rural tourism spots. These include the thermal stations of Sidi Charfi and Fézouane, the forests of Louassa El Hamra and the mountain of Jbel Lakhdar. One of the region’s star attractions is the Figuig Oasis by the Algerian border in the far south of the region. The CCISO report showcases opportunities to invest in new restaurants, transport infrastructure and the establishment of residential lodges.
The focus on niche rural tourism will help to improve the livelihood of more isolated communities that are disconnected from the major investment drive taking place in the north. However, by creating improved conditions on tourist sites to the south, the region might be in a position to encourage travellers coming for the Mediterranean beach resorts to also explore the south.
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