Contributing 8.1% to GDP and accounting for 7.1% of total employment in 2016, tourism evidently holds an important place in Morocco’s economy, even though the sector has faced some challenging times. This has largely been due to difficult external environments dampening travel from traditional source markets, though there is evidence that the sector’s outlook is improving. It is hoped that the diversification of source markets, alongside targeted tourism promotion initiatives under the long-term national development plan Vision 2020, will ease existing pressures on the sector.

PERFORMANCE: According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), travel and tourism contributed Dh81.3bn (€7.6bn) to GDP in 2016. Looking ahead, the WTTC forecast the sector’s direct contribution to rise at an average rate of 4% per annum from 2017 to 2027, to reach a contribution of Dh123.6bn (€11.4bn), or 8.6% of GDP, in 2027. The sector directly generated 819,000 jobs in 2016, constituting 7.1% of total employment that year, however direct contribution to employment was expected to fall by 0.1% in 2017. Despite this minimal decline in the short term, the rate of growth is forecast to increase over the long term, with the WTTC predicting an average yearly rise of 2.6% over the 2017-27 period, reaching 1.1m jobs in 2027, or 7.8% of total employment.

Looking further back to 2015, data collected by the High Commission for Planning indicates that tourism contributed Dh63.7bn (€5.9bn) to GDP, making up 6.5% of the total. This was an increase of 2.8% from 2014, when it contributed Dh61.9bn (€5.7bn).

While the WTTC forecasts encouraging growth prospects overall, there are areas that require development, as illustrated by the country’s profile in the World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report. In the latest edition, released in April 2017, Morocco ranked 65th out of 136 countries, compared to 62nd out of 141 countries in the previous edition, which was published in 2015. In Africa Morocco dropped from first to third position, falling behind South Africa and Mauritius. According to the World Economic Forum, Morocco’s falling ranks were due to a dip in performance in the business environment, health and hygiene, human resources and ICT readiness categories. Additionally, the environmental sustainability, service infrastructure for tourists, cultural resources and business travel categories were below average. Overall, however, Morocco maintained its score of 3.81 out of 7 points in both 2015 and 2017.

ARRIVALS: As with many countries in the MENA region, Morocco has suffered from a growing perception of insecurity in the region, as a result of the increased number of terrorist attacks carried out in recent years, even though Morocco itself has not suffered any terrorist incidents since 2011. While the government has strengthened security in the country, and at tourist sites in particular, other factors have affected tourism inflows, such as the economic crises experienced in several European countries, wherein lie many of Morocco’s traditional tourism source markets.

However, according to the latest available figures collected by the General Directorate of National Security, as divulged by the Moroccan Tourism Observatory (Observatoire du Tourisme, OT), there seems to be a turning of the tide, with tourism experiencing increasingly strong growth in 2017. In 2016 the country registered a total of 10.3m tourists, comprising 5.2m non-resident Moroccans and 5.1m foreigners. Total arrivals grew by 1.5% in 2016, with a significant increase in non-resident Moroccan arrivals (4%), which compensated for the negative growth of foreign arrivals (-0.9%).

By contrast, the first quarter of 2017 saw a year-on-year (y-o-y) growth rate of 7.9% in the number of arrivals. During this period, which is usually a quieter time, travel-wise, Morocco had already welcomed 2.1m tourists, comprising 850,202 non-resident Moroccans and 1.2m foreigners, with foreign arrivals growing faster than non-resident Moroccan inflows, at 11.7% and 2.7%, respectively. By November 2017 the number of tourists reached 10.5m, up 10% compared to the same period in the previous year.

The first signs of sector recovery surfaced in November 2016, coinciding with the COP22 UN Conference on Climate Change. Held in Marrakech, the COP22 conference boosted tourism inflows and contributed to the improvement of the country’s international image. In fact, tourism receipts reportedly reached a record level of Dh59.4 (€5.9bn) by the end of November 2016, representing the top contributor to foreign exchange reserves in Morocco at the time.

ACCOMMODATION: The substantial growth in overnight stays at classified accommodation establishments highlights the recovery that is taking place in the sector. According to the OT, the total number of overnight stays rose by 15% to reach 20.5m from January to November 2017, compared to the same period in 2016. Breaking this figure down, overnight stays made by residents grew by 8% y-o-y, whereas those by non-residents increased by 18% y-o-y. This is compared to growth of 11% in overnight stays made by residents and 1.4% by non-residents the previous year. In spite of challenges, the volume of classified accommodation establishments has steadily increased. According to figures from the OT, Morocco had 3509 classified accommodation establishments as of 2015, up almost 10% from 3198 in 2014. Hotel clubs, and three-, four- and five-star hotels represented 58% of classified accommodation establishments in 2016. Between January and November 2017 occupancy rates increased by four percentage points y-o-y to reach 45%. Bed capacity climbed to 242,624 in 2016, up 11,290 on the previous year; however, further work needs to be done in order to reach Vision 2020’s goal of doubling capacity. “There is potential to exceed the government’s target of an additional 200,000 beds, but more infrastructure is needed in beach zones to attract tourists, in addition to museums and other attractions that can supplement the pre-existing cuisine and nightlife offerings of Casablanca,” Ricardo Rubio, director-general at Hotel Barcelo, told OBG.

In terms of what type of accommodation is most popular, riads (traditional guest houses) appear to dominate the tourism market, accounting for 51% of classified accommodation establishments in 2015. Notwithstanding this, guest houses only represented 12% of total bed capacity in 2015, and accounted for 25% of bed capacity growth. This discrepancy, according to the OT, is due to the fact that the average guest house ratio of 15 beds per unit is relatively low.

PROMOTING TRAVEL: Looking to boost sector growth in a challenging external environment, the government adopted an intense, short-term campaign in late 2016 to make the most of its role as host of COP22. This approach focused on opening up new flight routes, launching promotional initiatives and diversifying source markets. Early results of such efforts were markedly positive, at least over the short term.

The key objectives outlined for tourism in the national strategy Vision 2020 are to double the size of the industry, establish Morocco as one of the top-20 tourist destinations in the world and set the foundations for sustainable sector development. To this end, the government’s overarching plan comprises six programmes to target the development of specific segments: seaside; culture and heritage; green and sustainable development tourism; domestic tourism; entertainment, sports and leisure; and high added-value niches, such as business, welfare and health tourism.

These segments offer a lot of potential, though domestic tourism is still relatively unexplored. “We are seeing more and more domestic tourism with a growing middle class travelling within the country,” Kamil Sellami, director-general at Hotel Le Doge, told OBG. Though the number of travel within the country is rising, Souleymane Khol, vice-president of sales, marketing distribution and revenue management at AccorHotels, pointed out that there is a gap in the market. “Expensive hotel fees prevent a large percentage of the Moroccan middle class from enjoying the complete tourist experience,” he told OBG.

The tourism component of Vision 2020 has encountered difficulties since the start of its rollout in 2010, caused by both domestic obstacles and external factors. As a result, the targets initially outlined are still some way off, raising questions as to whether the strategy should be adjusted. While the former government commissioned a review of the plan to assess its implementation and identify areas of potential change, the results were never published, and a change of government has since taken place. Stakeholders are awaiting action from the new government, which was formed in April 2017, to push forward necessary reforms, as multiple initiatives are seemingly already on the table.

REGULATORY REFORM: Prior to the change of leadership, the government had been pushing forward a series of reforms for better regulation of tourist accommodation, travel agencies, tour guides and companies operating transportation services for tourists.

Notably, the authorities had created a new rating and classification system for classified accommodation establishments, building upon the legislation adopted in 2014, to enforce a stronger quality-control mechanism, partially achieved through the implementation of surprise inspections to ensure the quality of service provided at all times. However, according to Abdelaziz Samim, managing director of the National Hotel Industry Federation, government decrees and regulatory texts are still required for these changes to be fully operational. “The purpose of this initiative is to shift examination methods towards a more direct evaluation approach, in order to better monitor the quality of services dispensed to clients,” Samim told OBG.

The former government also moved to tighten regulations for travel agencies through Law No. 11-16, which was adopted in September 2016, with assurances that the new legislative framework would be beneficial to the industry. The reform enforced higher standards by establishing an updated ranking system for licence attribution, integrating online distribution and sales, facilitating the conditions of access to trade and management activities, and harmonising the activities carried out by travel agencies with the relevant legislation, such as consumer protection and e-commerce.

While important in bringing the industry in line with global best practices, the introduction of the new legislation was controversial: it generated resistance from sector stakeholders, who criticised their lack of involvement in the drafting process and the government’s disregard for shared recommendations.

Lastly, according to local media reports, the government had been contemplating new operational guidelines – relating to vehicle maintenance, insurance and social service benefits – in addition to increased accountability requirements for those operating transport services or guided activities for tourists. Furthering the 2012 legislation on the creation of two specific tourist guide categories, the process of renewing operating licences requires enrolment in annual training courses run by the Ministry of Tourism, in order to keep the skills and knowledge of tour guides up to standard across the board. Two of these courses, “Guides of Cities and Tourist Circuits” and “Guides of Natural Spaces”, were inaugurated in October 2016.

DESTINATIONS: In the past key industry players have invested heavily in seaside tourism, but the city of Marrakech has recently emerged as the leading cultural and historical centre of Morocco, proving to be the main driving force of the industry. By the end of 2017, the city had attracted a record number of 2.5m tourists, a 20% increase on 2016. This figure is forecast to climb to 2.7m in 2018. However, other destinations are gaining popularity as well. “Aside from Marrakech, Fez is another historic and cultural heritage centre, and it has grown significantly in the last couple of years,” Samim told OBG. “Tangiers-Tétouan has also displayed interesting growth in seaside tourism, as evidenced by its expanding hotel capacity.”

According to local media reports, the cities of Fez and Meknès are to benefit from the implementation of a regional tourism strategy that was announced in February 2017. Spanning from 2017 to 2021, this strategy will utilise contract programmes, which are essentially government-backed, outsourced plans, in order to further develop the historic and cultural assets of these formerly imperial cities. For instance, Fez will enjoy the support of a Dh8bn (€741m) contract programme, aimed at boosting bed capacity by an extra 13,000 by 2020. With this, the city is expected to welcome 1.1m tourists, generating some Dh11.7bn (€1.1bn).

SEASIDE: Agadir-Ida Ou Tanane, a coastal province in the south-west, recorded the highest number of overnight stays in classified accommodation establishments in 2017 after Marrakech, increasing by 12% on the previous year to reach 5.1m stays.

The momentum in air arrivals was even more striking, as the number grew by 18% y-o-y to reach 395,141 between January and November 2017. Sector stakeholders argue that this growth spurt was generated by the opening of new air connections, combined with targeted promotion initiatives that take advantage of online platforms. According to local reports, the Moroccan National Tourism Office and the Agadir Regional Tourism Centre concluded a series of partnerships to support the opening of 13 new air connections to Agadir, amounting to an additional 100,000 seats on flights per annum. Another potential driver of growth came in April 2017, when Air Arabia Maroc, a Moroccan low-cost airline, announced it was opening its sixth operational base in the seaside town.

Authorities are considering innovative developments to entice visitors year round to counteract the seasonal nature of seaside tourism. For example, work on a Dh1.4bn (€129.6m) convention centre in Agadir is under way, which will include conference and office spaces, a small mall, and a cinema. Seaside segment progress is not limited to Agadir either. Tangiers-Tétouan-Al Hoceima, another major seaside area, also displayed high growth rates in the first 11 months of 2017, both in terms of arrivals, up by 25%, and overnight stays, which rose by 26% (see Tangiers chapter).

Even with these achievements, however, the development of seaside tourism fell short of the goals outlined in the government’s segment strategy, Plan Azur. This sub-division of Vision 2020 was conceived with the goal of creating six seaside resorts: Saidia, in Berkane; Mazagan Beach Resort, in El Jadida; Mogador, in Essaouira; Port Lixus, in Larache; Taghazout Bay, in Agadir; and Plage Blanche, in Guelim. According to the Court of Auditors report on Plan Azur published in January 2017, relatively little progress has been made since the plan was first implemented some 15 years ago. For instance, as of early 2017 there were only 1570 new beds out of the total 58,540 expected by 2020, which translated to 2.8% of the intended number.

This stunted progress has largely been due to financing difficulties, but strategies are now being set up to restart development. For example, in January 2016 the Moroccan Agency for Tourism Development announced the establishment of a Dh400m (€37m) guarantee fund, with 75% financed by the state and 25% by the Hassan II Fund. The fund aims to cover 60% of Plan Azur projects and 50% of non-seaside resort tourism initiatives. Additionally, following a re-evaluation of priorities, the government announced that its resources would be dedicated to four of the six identified seaside resorts, specifically Saidia, Taghazout, Port Lixus and Mogador.

BUSINESS: Business tourism, specifically the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) segment, is displaying promising growth. With three major conference centres, 25 five-star hotels and the successful hosting of COP22 under its belt, Marrakech remains the city with the strongest service capacity.

However, Casablanca and other major cities have arguably demonstrated higher demand for MICE segment services. In fact, according to local news, 80% of arrivals to Casablanca in 2016 were business-related. In response to such high demand, Casablanca has witnessed a sustained flow of construction projects, which has so far produced several five-star hotels. According to the OT, Casablanca had nine five-star hotels in 2015, posting the second-highest occupation rate for this tier accommodation at 68%, after Rabat at 71%, though ahead of Marrakech at 46%. Since then, more five-star hotels have opened up in Casablanca, including the Four Seasons in 2015 and the Grand Mogador in 2016.

Long-term prospects also look strong, as more developments are on the way, with international companies Sana Hotels and Oberoi announcing plans to open establishments in Casablanca in 2019 and 2018, respectively. Marriott opened a hotel in Fez in 2017 and renovation to the Rivoli Hotel in Casablanca carried out by the Barcelo Hotel Group and Tikida Group is expected to finish up in 2018. For the city to fully benefit from this demand, however, even more needs to be done to improve Casablanca’s offering. “The absence of a proper space for MICE events has meant that five-star hotels have stepped in to provide services for segment events, in addition to accommodation,” Marie-Pierre Brancaleoni, marketing director at the Four Seasons Casablanca, told OBG. “Even so, total supply capacity in the city for the MICE segment stands at around 1000 rooms, which continues to fall short of existing demand, leaving margin for growth in the future.”

SUSTAINABLE TOURISM: The government is working to turn Morocco into a model of successful, sustainable tourism in the Mediterranean basin. The rise of ecotourism in the country is reflected in the growing prominence of the Green Key, an internationally recognised environmental label that is awarded to accommodation establishments that comply with a set of eco-friendly criteria. Established in Denmark in 1994, and then adopted and launched worldwide by the Foundation for Environmental Education in 2002, the Green Key was first introduced in Morocco in 2007. As of 2017, 84 companies received the Green Key label. This environmentally geared initiative has gained traction in recent times, with Marrakech doubling its recipient figures in 2016, standing at a total of 34 in 2017.

To further ensure the advancement of sustainable tourism, the government has multiplied its efforts in support of initiatives at home and abroad. For instance, Morocco partnered with the UN World Tourism Organisation as an official sponsor of the 2017 International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. Through this, the government plans to promote the African Charter of Sustainable Tourism, signed in Morocco on the margins of COP22. Before this commitment, the government had also already promoted and endorsed the Casablanca Declaration, which was officially adopted at the fourth conference of the Western Mediterranean Forum, held in Morocco in July 2016. The declaration enshrines a series of commitments on tourism and climate change, which include limiting the impact of tourism activities on the environment, improving the energy efficiency of buildings, promoting the rational use of water resources and encouraging soft modes of transport, among others.

At the national level, the second edition of the Moroccan Day for Sustainable Tourism, which took place on March 20, 2017, provided a platform for the government’s announcement of a public-private partnership with key industry players. A central goal of the partnership is to raise awareness about the Moroccan Charter of Sustainable Tourism that was adopted on January 25, 2016, and revolves around environment protection, the sustainability of culture and heritage, the prioritisation of local development, and social responsibility. These targets will be partially achieved through education and training programmes.

One of the key sustainability challenges lies in ensuring that major tourism projects, such as those envisioned in Plan Azur, comply with environmental standards. Under the Moroccan Day for Sustainable Tourism, trophies were awarded to notable eco-friendly establishments, in order to recognise and reward those progressing ecotourism. However, as of 2017 Morocco seemingly lacks a monitoring system to ensure that companies comply with the sector charter.

MEDICAL TOURISM: In March 2017 Marrakech hosted the second edition of the Africa Medical Tourism Expo, an annual event that brought together sector stakeholders and strengthened the status of Morocco in the medical tourism market, with event organisers recognising the country as one of Africa’s flagship medical destinations. However, the Medical Tourism Index of 2016, compiled by the International Healthcare Research Centre, did not recommend the country as highly. In the index, Morocco was ranked 31st out of the 41 countries evaluated, receiving an overall score of 59.77, which positioned it ahead of Tunisia (56.78) but behind South Africa (62.20), the only two other African countries included in the index.

There is significant action taking place in the segment though, and Marrakech in particular has emerged as a medical tourism hub. Indeed, according to local reports, Marrakech Healthcare City, the first such project to be developed in the country, was set to open its doors in December 2016, but this had not been achieved as of January 2018. The $40m facility, promoted by UAE-based Tasweek Real Estate Development and Marketing, will aim to accommodate more than 5000 patients per year, covering specialties such as neurosurgery, orthopaedics, genetics, odontology, oral and maxillofacial surgery. It will include not only a 140-bed private hospital, but also a five-star hotel with 40 rooms and a 56-room apartment complex with swimming pools and private gardens. According to local media, Marrakech has been a popular medical tourism destination with French tourists in particular, as fees are as little as one-third of those in France. In order to attract foreign patients from other markets, Marrakech Healthcare City is considering expanding its services to facilitate an easier arrival for medical tourists.

OUTLOOK: Although there are persisting challenges for the sector, the outlook for tourism in Morocco is generally positive, with 2017 garnering strong results. The country has a number of favourable factors to build upon, such as its political stability, and new infrastructure developments and air connections. While the sector is still far from achieving its 2020 target of 20m arrivals, the latest figures signal an uptick in activity, demonstrated by growing inflows, an increasing number of overnight stays in classified accommodation establishments and the construction of new infrastructure. Even with these successes, however, sector leaders have identified weaker areas to focus on, such as the relatively low average occupancy rates.

Meanwhile, Morocco’s niche tourism segments – notably, seaside, business and MICE – are seeing considerable progress, coming as a result of source market diversification and targeted travel promotion initiatives. Nonetheless, there is still much room for improvement, specifically in the untapped prospect of domestic tourism. Non-resident Moroccans were central in supporting the sector when traditional source markets faltered in recent years, yet this market remains relatively unexplored. As the new government has had time to settle in, pending legislative reforms are expected to move forward, a process which will greatly enhance a sector that has yet to realise its full potential.