Tourist attractions in northern Morocco are diverse, ranging from urban tourism in the historic cities of Tangiers and Tétouan, to natural parks, niche destinations in Assilah and Chefchaouen, and ancient Roman ruins in areas such as Lixus and Volubilis. The potential is real, but existing tourism infrastructure limits the industry’s capacity. As a result, tourism authorities in Tangiers-Tétouan are working to strengthen the sector offering on two different levels: one track aims to develop large-scale tourist attractions and resorts, while a second focuses on natural sites and ecotourism, in order to harness the value of the local environment and create economic activity in rural areas.

VISITOR PROFILES: The Tangiers-Tétouan region has a hotel capacity of over 13,300 beds, and authorities aim to increase this to 40,000 by 2020. According to the Regional Tourism Council, the number of nights spent by tourists in Tangiers hotels has climbed in the past four years from 818,379 in 2010 to 920,410 in 2013, including a 7% increase year-on-year (y-o-y) in 2013. This makes Tangiers the fourth-most-frequented tourism destination nationwide in terms of nights spent, behind Marrakech, Agadir and Casablanca.

The Tangiers-Tétouan region benefits significantly from its proximity to Spain, both in terms of international visitors and returning nationals. As such, Tangiers has become an important gateway for tourist arrivals to Morocco at a national level. According to statistics from the Tangiers Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Services, Morocco’s ports accounted for 21% of all tourism arrivals in 2012. Of these, Tanger-Med and the Bay of Tangiers accounted for 1.74m of a total of 1.94m port arrivals in 2012, complemented by a small number of arrivals at ports in the Oriental region.

NORTHERN METROPOLIS: Tangiers will get the bulk of new building projects given its position as the northern hub and major Mediterranean port. High-end hotel building has picked up as the regional economy expands and foreign arrivals increase, particularly on the bayfront corniche. The number of beds in Tangiers grew from 7087 in 2000 to 7920 in 2012, and the city aims to reach 13,000 beds by 2020, according to Tangiers Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The five-year regional development programme, Tangiers-Metropolis, includes plans to redevelop and preserve the Hercules caves and the R’milat Gardens, a former private park that is now open to the public and houses plants from all over the world. A new theatre is also planned to enhance infrastructure.

BAY OF TANGIERS: The Dh7bn (€621.6m) project to convert the Bay of Tangiers into a recreational port should multiply the city’s tourism offerings. Under this 2010-17 reconversion programme, a new 1000-berth marina is under construction east of the port, and the existing fishing port will be converted into a second marina, bringing total capacity to 1600 berths. The facility is meant to encourage the development of related services and activities such as scuba diving and sailing. Three docks, ranging between 260 metres and 360 metres, are being constructed to accommodate cruise ships. Cruise transit traffic will only bring moderate benefits to local businesses, but the plan aims to allow the port to receive 300,000 cruise visitors by 2016 and up to 750,000 visitors by 2020. This influx is expected to help to support the commercial and recreational facilities being constructed around the port.

Three new hotels will be constructed in the Bay of Tangiers under the urban component, which will develop a 160-ha area of the bay as a tourist attraction and centre of city life. Tenders have already been launched for the construction of a three-star and four-star hotel. A third tender is expected to be launched in 2015 for a five-star hotel and a 200-bed residence.

In total, these facilities aim to increase the city’s hospitality capacity by 1160 beds. The bay conversion project also includes a plan to construct the area’s first cable car, which will connect the port in a circular route that hits the main tourist attractions in Tangiers: the city centre, the historic medina and the kasbah. The project cost is estimated to reach about Dh200m (€17.8m).

Société d’Aménagement pour la Reconversion de la Zone Portuaire de Tanger Ville (SAPT) is reportedly negotiating with two groups for the 30-year concession to construct and manage the cable car. TÉTOUAN:A smaller destination, Tétouan registered just over 318,000 nights spent in hotels in 2013. This number fell slightly y-o-y from a peak of 340,000 nights the year before, but represents growth of 8% since 2010. Occupancy rates in Tétouan hover between 28% and 30%, which leaves considerable room for growth.

Tétouan is perhaps the most popular cultural destination in the northern region, and its historic medina is classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tétouan accounts for roughly 40% of the 13,300 hotel beds in the Tangiers-Tétouan region, much of which is concentrated in the Tamuda Bay tourism zone. The zone covers 50 ha on the Mediterranean coast, located 15 km from Tétouan and its airport. Tamuda Bay is divided into four areas, Cabo Negro, Restinga, Marina Smir and the Holiday Club, which contain a total of eight hotels and two 18-hole golf courses.

OFF THE BEATEN PATH: Regional authorities are also working to establish the town of Larache, on the Atlantic coast between Tangiers and Assilah, as a major tourism destination. Plans have been in the works for over a decade to build a luxury coastal resort near Lixus, an ancient site whose ruins span four different civilisations, from Phoenicia to ancient Rome. Larache is one of six destinations selected to receive high-end seaside resorts under Plan Azur. Only one site has been completed so far under the scheme, the Saïdia beach resort in the Oriental region, but it too has faced difficulties.

While Larache has considerable potential, there was very little precedent for tourism activity in the region when it was selected under Plan Azur, and the project has faced external complications. The site was originally planned to receive a luxury resort with nine hotels, two 18-hole golf courses, several restaurants and a bridge over Oued Loukkos connecting the coastal resort to the town of Larache. Belgium’s Thomas & Piron and the Dutch firm Orco withdrew from the project in 2009 as a result of problems with the resort’s conception and the impact of the European economic crisis. In October 2013 the project was taken over by a consortium of Moroccan groups, the real estate developer Alliances (50%), Caisse de Dépôt et de Gestion (30%), and the Moroccan Fund for Tourism Development (20%). With the new developers in place, local authorities hope that work will restart in 2015, this time more in line with regional capacity. The project’s scope has been scaled back to include five hotels, with a total capacity of 3600 beds, one golf course, as well as villas, residential units and a recreational marina.

Development of the site is expected to require a total investment of Dh3bn (€266.4m) and create some 4000 direct jobs when complete. The challenge for local authorities will be to avoid the problems facing the Saïdia resort, including difficulty obtaining financing and attracting visitors outside of the summer months. Larache’s revised project, while less ambitious, is better aligned with local capacity and demand, and it stands to add an interesting new dimension to regional tourism in the long term.

GOING GREEN: The region has untapped potential for nature and ecotourism. A key site in the Tangiers-Tétouan regional is the Bouhachem natural park. The Tangiers-Tétouan Regional Tourism Council has been working with its French counterparts in the Parc du Luberon and the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region to establish Bouhachem as the country’s top natural park. A convention signed by both park authorities in 2013 sets the terms of a joint project to protect the area’s environment, improve tourism infrastructure and provide training for park managers. The project is expected to protect the environment and create new sources of revenue in the surrounding provinces of Larache, Chefchaouen and Tétouan.

Additionally, local officials contend that the Taza-Al Hoceima-Taounate region has considerable untapped potential for small-scale ecotourism. The region has a diverse environment, including mountains, well-preserved Mediterranean coastline, and two natural parks in Al Hoceima and Tazekka. While the region does face a number of constraints, including limited air and road transport connections, the region’s newly established Regional Tourism Council is hoping to leverage just that, by working to develop a niche tourism industry to capitalise on the region’s untouched environment.