Morocco has ambitious goals to increase tourist arrivals

Recent years have seen Morocco grapple with multiple difficulties, from the eurozone crisis in Europe to regional instability in the wake of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. The country was also preparing to host the Africa Cup of Nations in January 2015, but lost its host status following the Ebola outbreak. Though it lodged a request to postpone the tournament, the Confederation of African Football declined this and named Equatorial Guinea as the new host. Yet amid such challenging times, the country still aspires to become a top-20 tourism destination by 2020, motivated by the ambitious goals set out in the framework of its national tourism development plan, Vision 2020.

Succeeding Vision 2010, Vision 2020 aims at attracting 20m visitors, boosting tourism revenues to Dh140bn (€15.2bn) and expanding hotel bed capacity to 375,000, all by the end of the decade. While the sector did not achieve all of the objectives outlined in Vision 2010 on time, it has nonetheless made significant strides in improving certain indicators. Arrival numbers, for instance, more than doubled between 2000 and 2010, rising from 4.27m tourists to 9.28m and far outpacing nearby Tunisia, where visitor numbers increased from 5.05m to 6.9m over the same period.

A strong driver of social and economic development, tourism contributes 12% of GDP and supports some 505,000 direct jobs. The sector is also an important foreign exchange earner, generating up to Dh57.2bn (€6.2bn) in 2014 (excluding international travel costs) and accounting for around 29% of exported goods and services.

Performance 

Some 10.3m tourists visited Morocco in 2014, representing a 2.4% increase over 2013. In terms of arrivals, the country fared relatively well compared to neighbouring Tunisia (-3.2%), for instance; however, the growth rate was slower than in 2013, when visitor numbers rose 7% year-on-year (y-o-y). The total number of nights spent in the country’s classified accommodation also grew by just 3% (19.6m nights) in 2014 after increasing 9% a year earlier. This decline can be attributed to a number of exogenous factors, including the protracted economic recession in Europe – Morocco’s main source market for foreign visitors – as well as a continued perception of risk for North Africa as a whole. “Growth rates in 2014 took off with a promising start,” Adnane Jelb, head of the service studies and strategic monitoring department at the Ministry of Tourism, told OBG. “However, as of the third quarter the sector witnessed a slowdown due to a number of destabilising events occurring elsewhere in the region, such as the assassination of French citizen Hervé Gourdel in neighbouring Algeria, impacting arrivals from certain markets and to certain destinations.”

Moroccans residing abroad accounted for 47% of visitors, while the rest came from diverse nationalities: the French made up 17% of arrivals, followed by the Spanish (7%) and the British (5%). The bulk of tourists from abroad – 6.94m, or 68% of foreign visitors – arrived by air, with Casablanca’s Mohammed V Airport welcoming 2.28m tourists, followed by Marrakech’s Ménara Airport with 2.12m.

Source Markets

The French market, still the single largest source of visitors to the kingdom, has progressed slowly over the past five years, with their numbers growing by an average annual rate of 1%. Such growth rates are not unique to Morocco, but rather reflect a general trend among French travellers whose spending power has been curtailed by the economic downturn in Europe, and whose concerns about travelling to the North Africa region have increased since 2011.

What has changed, however, are the categories of French people who visit. “The number of returning French tourists to Morocco is on the rise, as opposed to first-time visitors,” Jelb told OBG. “These tourists are accustomed to the country and return to discover the culture at their own convenience, often residing in rented apartments and sometimes even acquiring property.” Another developing trend is online reservations, whereby tourists are directly involved in arranging their own flight and accommodation. This marks an important shift from a long tradition of package tours or bookings through travel agents. The quest for good deals in conditions of tighter spending has also seen the number of last-minute reservations increase in recent years, impacting both revenues and visibility.

To offset the slowing arrival numbers from France, Morocco has sought to diversify its source markets over the past four years, attracting more visitors particularly from the UK, Spain and Germany. In 2014, 476,550 British tourists visited Morocco, up 18% yo-y, and the country aims to raise this to 1m over the next three years. The increase comes on the back of efforts carried out by the Moroccan National Tourism Office (Office National Marocain du Tourisme, ONMT) to promote the country abroad. The addition of new air links, motivated by the open sky agreement signed in 2006, has also bolstered visitor numbers, particularly from Spain, which in 2014 placed second after France by number of arrivals and accounted for 7% of total visitors.

Outside of Morocco’s traditional markets, the ONMT is also looking to draw more tourists from Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, China and Brazil. Africa is also on the agenda for the near future, with plans to set up a representative office in Abidjan.

Promotion

The instability that ensued from the Arab Spring and incidents in Algeria, such as the In Amenas gas plant attack in 2013 and the kidnapping of French hiker Hervé Gourdel in 2014, have affected the international perception of the region as a whole, dragging down growth in Morocco despite the kingdom's comparative stability. “We need to enhance communication in order to differentiate ourselves as a country from what is happening elsewhere in the region,” Mohamed Said Tahiri, director-general of the National Confederation of Tourism (Confédération Nationale du Tourisme, CNT), told OBG. “Agadir, for instance, offers favourable weather conditions throughout the year and has the potential to be a year-round destination.”

Any attempt to expand Morocco’s promotional campaigns will of course depend on its capacity to diversify its actual offerings, such as its slowly gestating seaside resort development plan, Plan Azur. But even apart from developing new attractions, the country’s promotional efforts have faced challenges in attracting sufficient funding. “The ONMT’s budget accounts for 0.54% of total revenues generated by the country, while that of neighbouring countries hovers between 2.2% and 2.5%,” Tahiri told OBG.

This should change in the future. The ONMT is expected to benefit from a tax levied in April 2014 on air travel to Morocco. Half of the revenues generated from this tax will go into the ONMT’s coffers, in order to bolster the agency’s promotion campaigns abroad. According to local media, the new levy generated up to Dh200m (€21.8m) in its first five months. The largest share of the ONMT’s budget at present is usually swallowed up by its promotional campaigns in Western Europe – namely France, Spain, the UK, Germany, Italy and Benelux.

Focus on  Quality

While Vision 2010 sought to improve the sector’s overall indicators, Vision 2020 devotes more attention to the quality of accommodation and services rendered. To that end, a new ranking system is currently being implemented to evaluate the quality of services and infrastructure in existing and potential hotels, abolishing the preceding regulation, which dates back to 2004 and focused more on technical aspects. The new regulation will apply to hotels with three stars and more, and will involve inspections carried out in two phases, starting with a technical evaluation and followed by a “mystery guest” audit.

A draft bill was presented to parliament in September 2014. Once voted into law, hotels will be given 24 months to comply and upgrade their standards. To capitalise on niches like ecotourism, Vision 2020 also aims at better developing the country’s diverse assets, from the natural landscapes along its coasts, in the Sahara Desert and in the Atlas Mountains, to the cultural heritage of its Kasbahs and Medinas. While more than 1350 tourism assets have been identified nationwide, only 350 have so far been developed into a distinct offering, indicating further potential for development and investment.

Governance

Perhaps one of the main obstacles encountered under Vision 2010 was governance. This was partly evidenced by the delays experienced in carrying out projects outlined in the country’s Plan Azur, a strategy to develop coastal tourism by building six seaside resorts. To improve this, under Vision 2020 authorities are seeking to strengthen management at both a regional and national level. At the core of the new plan is the identification of eight regions for development, each headed by its own Tourism Development Agency, which will be established gradually in the years to 2018 in order to ensure the success of the national strategy and regional tourism policies.

Spearheading these agencies is the High Authority of Tourism (Haute Autorité du Tourisme, HAT), which as of July 2015 was yet to be created. Expected in 2015, the HAT will be the national authority uniting the public sector (including the Ministry of Tourism and a dozen other ministries), the private sector and the eight regions, in order to follow up on, adjust and arbitrate the goals outlined in Vision 2020. Given that development in tourism is closely linked to that in other sectors, the HAT’s creation is expected to be crucial in improving sector management, particularly at a regional level. “The transversal nature of tourism means it involves a multitude of government departments, notably the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Transport. Cross-sector collaboration is therefore key to achieving our goals,” Tahiri told OBG.

Plan Azur

Morocco has a coastline of more than 3500 km bordering both the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, yet the country’s seaside tourism segment remains shy of its potential. Even Agadir – which had the second-highest number of tourist nights spent in-country in 2014 after Marrakech, at 5.05m nights, or 26% of the total – is running below capacity, hindering its competitiveness as a destination and limiting its chances of being marketed by tour operators. “A minimum of 60,000 available beds are required to attract a tour operator, but Agadir today runs with just 30,000 beds,” Jelb told OBG. Under Vision 2010, Plan Azur was devised to develop six seaside resorts: Saidia in Berkane, Lixus in Larache, Mazagan in El Jadida, Mogador in Essaouira, Taghazout in Agadir and Plage Blanche in Guelmim. The projects have, however, been held up by a number of obstacles related to financing, management and marketing, thus limiting the ONMT’s efforts to promote seaside offerings abroad.

First Resorts

Nonetheless, several resorts have made some headway since. Saidia, the plan’s first resort to open in 2009, and located in the north-east near the border with Algeria, today has three operational hotels, with a fourth to be added in 2016. Its current bed capacity stands at 3000 – though 1200 of these have not been in use since October 2013, after Atlas Hospitality, the company managing the Oriental Bay Beach hotel, left the resort due to the non-attainment of objectives set when it took on its contract, according to local media. Mazagan, also inaugurated in 2009, and located on the Atlantic coast about 80 km south-west of Casablanca, has a capacity of 500 rooms in addition to a golf course and casino. Two more phases have yet to be realised to achieve the resort’s goals of 8000 beds and two golf courses, estimated at a total cost of Dh11bn (€1.2bn). Works on the Taghazout resort in the south-west are advancing, with its first hotel expected to open in 2015 and more in the pipeline; the project is valued at around Dh10bn (€1.1bn) and when complete should account for a total of 12,000 beds. Of the 10,000 beds planned for the Mogador resort in the south-west, 500 have been delivered so far, as well as a golf course. Lixus, in the north, which is expected to attract Dh3bn (€326m) in investment, will eventually comprise five hotels and a golf course. Finally, Oued Chbika, in the south-west, has yet to take off with 30,000 planned beds.

These resorts under Plan Azur will be crucial in increasing revenue from the country’s seaside assets. Boosting seaside tourism is also key to extending tourists’ average length of stay, which is currently just 3.6 days. Tour operators, which attract around 20% of visitors to Morocco, will be key to ensuring the success of these resorts, by bringing in foreign tourists. The lack of a seaside offering has held back their share of visitor numbers, while recent expansion in air connectivity has also led low-cost flights to outpace charter flights.

Marrakech

Between 2000 and 2014, arrival numbers to Marrakech airport rose from 591,142 to 2.12m, while the city’s bed capacity increased from 18,696 to 65,640, partly due to heightened investment in the city’s infrastructure and an aggressive promotional campaign. Today Marrakech accounts for the largest number of nights spent in-country, with 6.72m nights in 2014, up from 3.78m in 2000. “Marrakech performed remarkably well in 2014, offsetting the delay witnessed by Plan Azur,” CNT’s Tahiri told OBG. Arrivals increased by 9% in 2014, accounting for 21% of total arrivals to the country. One reason for this growth was that some trips to certain remote areas – such as Ouarzazate, for which arrivals fell 2% in 2014 – were substituted for places like Marrakech due to the slower demand caused by widespread concerns over regional risk.

Mice

Marrakech is also the leading destination for meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE), measured by both capacity and number of events held. The city hosts the country’s largest congress and exhibition centres, notably the Mogador Palace Conference and Exhibition Centre inaugurated in 2013. Dedicated MICE space is also gradually being developed in other major cities, notably Casablanca, Rabat and Tangiers.

On the whole, however, the MICE segment remains underserved, with a particular shortage in equipment. Plans to address this include the creation of a Moroccan Convention Bureau, announced after the ONMT and the CNT signed a memorandum of understanding in April 2015. The new body will be in charge of devising promotional tools for MICE offerings and providing a comprehensive, up-to-date list of existing infrastructure serving the segment.

City-Breaks

Works currently being carried out in numerous Moroccan cities like Casablanca, Rabat and Tangiers should help a new form of tourism offering to emerge. The so-called city-break – a short holiday spent in a city like Casablanca or Rabat – is being promoted through a number of projects in a bid to boost travellers’ length of stay. While Marrakech has proved a success, other Moroccan cities are still seeing very modest visitor numbers. The number of nights spent in Casablanca, for example, increased from 1.13m nights in 2000 to just 1.89m nights in 2014, while in Tangiers the figure went from 612,638 to 932,777 in the same period.

To raise these numbers further, several projects have been launched in recent years with the aim of generating more entertainment and leisure offerings in various cities, ranging from development of museums and theatres to enhancing architecture and building new shopping malls. In Casablanca, for instance, an estimated Dh10.3bn (€1.1bn) is expected to be spent as part of a state-backed programme to develop 46 projects in the greater Casablanca region, including the city’s marina, a tourism fishing port and a cruise ship port. The marina, an Dh8bn (€870m) investment, is being developed by Compagnie Générale Immobilière, a subsidiary of the state-owned financial group CDG. Among the city’s major and much-anticipated projects, it will consist of three hotels, a convention centre, a port and a shopping mall covering an area of 60,000 sq metres.

A second project called Wessal Bouregreg, launched in 2014 in the Bouregreg valley in Rabat to develop cultural and tourism offerings in the Moroccan capital, will cover 110 ha and include hotels and other attractions – namely a marina, a shopping centre and a 2000-seat theatre. The project will run through 2020 and is expected to mobilise up to Dh9bn (€979m) in investment.

Tangiers is also seeing its central port area redeveloped and works are currently at an advanced stage. The rise in cruise numbers in recent years – by about 9% a year since 2004 – has prompted authorities to expand the city’s port capacity and ancillary infrastructure such as hotels and restaurants, in order to allow more ships to dock along its coastline and cater to the rising number of visitors.

Connectivity

Air links have expanded significantly, particularly since an open sky agreement was signed in 2006, allowing low-cost airlines such as easyJet and Ryanair to penetrate the market. Nonetheless, further links need to be developed if the country is to reach its goal of 20m tourists by 2020. Flights from Berlin to Marrakech, for instance, are carried out just twice a week, and those coming from the UK outside of the big cities like London and Manchester are limited.

While Royal Air Maroc flies directly to New York, further development of long-haul flights, in line with the country’s ambitions to attract tourists from countries like China and Brazil, would help accelerate growth (see Transport chapter). For now, the types of flight that serve the country need adjusting to provide a more equitable flow of tourists and revenues. “In addition to increasing air links towards certain destinations, a balance needs to be achieved between regular, charter and low-cost flights, which will help diversify the customer base,” Jelb told OBG. “The expansion in the number of low-cost flights landing in Marrakech, for instance, has certainly contributed to boosting arrival numbers, but on the downside it has impacted revenues and length of stay. Saidia, on the other hand, needs more charter and low-cost flights during both the low and high seasons.”

Plans to overhaul and expand airport infrastructure should support the expected rise in flight arrivals (see Transport chapter). These include expanding terminals 1 and 2 at Casablanca’s Mohammed V Airport to bring overall capacity from its current 7m to 14m by 2017. Similar plans under way at Marrakech Menara Airport are designed to add a new terminal and revamp its existing one to bring overall annual capacity from 9m to 10m passengers.

Staffing

Tourism employs more than half a million people. However, human resources in the sector are widely acknowledged to have suffered from poor quality as a result of frequent turnover and generally unattractive salaries. While the number of students undertaking training in the tourism and hospitality segment has evolved – the number of vocational training graduates has grown from 8483 in 2007/08 to 12,757 in 2011/12, according to the latest available data from the Ministry of Tourism – a mismatch persists between the qualifications obtained and the demands of sector jobs.

Under Vision 2020, the country has set itself the ambitious goal of training an additional 130,000 people in the tourism industry. To this end, a contract for improving human resources was signed during the last tourism conference in September 2014 between the Ministry of Tourism, the CNT, the Ministry of National Education, the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, the Bureau of Professional Training and Employment Promotion, and the National Federation for Private Training. The contract, which will run through to 2020, aims at aligning qualifications with the sector’s needs by developing training at the vocational and tertiary levels; creating a baccalaureate diploma in tourism and hospitality; and establishing eight centres of excellence for professional training.

The excellence centres will focus on training a new generation of specialised technicians in hospitality, catering and tourism. Works are currently under way to establish the first centre in Marrakech, which will likely be followed by others in Mohammedia, Fes and Agadir. As for tertiary education, Tangier’s International Superior Institute of Tourism is collaborating with renowned schools such as France’s Institut Paul Bocuse, the University of Toronto and Harvard University to establish a research centre for development and sustainable tourism.

An agreement was also signed during the conference to establish the Higher School for Hotel Management in Tamansourt, Marrakech, specialising in middle- and top-management training. The project is currently being developed in partnership with Marrakech’s Cadi Ayyad University and is expected to be delivered within the next two years.

Outlook

Though arrival numbers fell shy of the country’s goal of 10.7m in 2014, Morocco fared well by regional standards, demonstrating its resilience to the instability that has struck most of the Arab world in recent years. The challenge that lies ahead, however, is partly how to convey this image of a stable and secure destination. The decision to postpone the Africa Cup of Nations following the Ebola outbreak should certainly back the country’s efforts to promote itself as a risk-free destination. As projects outlined in Plan Azur come on-line, they will help unlock potential in markets like the UK and Germany, which have long sought bargains and package holidays in the southern Mediterranean. To ensure that this continues apace, developing partnerships with foreign tour operators will be crucial. In diversifying the country’s customer base, not only does dependence on France as the main source market need to be reduced, but just as important, capitalising on the domestic market will be a necessary hedge against volatile tourist arrivals and looming uncertainty.

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The Report: Morocco 2015

Tourism chapter from The Report: Morocco 2015

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