The Fez-Meknes region is home to more than 40 historic sites – including three UNESCO World Heritage sites – and tourism is an important driver of growth.
In January 2018 Fez welcomed 69,400 visitors, a 35% increase compared to January of the previous year. The city’s history dates back 1200 years, when it was established as the first of Morocco’s four imperial capitals. At its heart stands Al Qarawiyyin Mosque, which, with a capacity of 20,000 people, is one of the largest mosques in Africa. The city also claims to administer the world’s oldest university, University of Al Qarawiyyin, established in 859, and its oldest tannery, Chouara Tannery, which has been in operation since the 11th century. Beyond these sites, Fez maintains several historically notable madrassas (religious schools), ornate gateways in the city’s exterior walls, and numerous kasbahs ( fortified citadels), mausoleums and tea houses.
Meknes – 60 km south-west of Fez and itself a former imperial capital – is emerging as a tourist destination in its own right. The city welcomed about 16,200 tourists in January 2018, a 26% increase against January 2017. Furthermore, the Australian travel guide Lonely Planet named Meknes one of its 10 best travel destinations worldwide for 2019, accompanying Dakar, Senegal as one of two African cities on the list. Meknes is famous for the mausoleum of Sultan Moulay Ismail, Morocco’s longest-ruling sultan, as well as its old medina.
Owing to its rich heritage, Fez-Meknes is also a site of considerable religious tourism: Moulay Idriss, 30 km north of Meknes, is a popular pilgrimage site named after Idriss I, who is widely recognised as having founded Morocco in the 8th century and is himself a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad. The region also welcomes a significant number of wellness tourists seeking the spring-fed baths at Ifrane and Moulay Yacoub.
The region as a whole saw a 30% increase in overnight stays between January and September of 2018 compared to the same period in 2010, and recent investments indicate strong interest in sustaining this trend.
In 2018 several projects were launched in the medinas of Fez and Meknes to preserve, promote and renew the cities’ cultural heritage sites. This project follows and expands upon the success of a programme, undertaken between 2013 and 2017, to restore 27 historic monuments and build eight parking lots with a 3600-vehicle capacity around the perimeter of Fez. The 2013-17 programme invested Dh583m (€52.4m), supported by funding from the World Bank, and employed more than 1600 people throughout the course of the work. The project included the restoration of elements of Al Qarawiyyin Library, which is home to treasures like a 9th-century copy of the Quran.
The main point of entry to region by air is the Fès-Saïss Airport, where a second terminal was added in May 2017 to accommodate rising demand, expanding the airport’s capacity to 2.5m passengers per annum. The newer terminal is a platform for several budget airlines, including Transavia, Ryanair, Easy Jet, TUI Fly and Air Arabia, which has expanded access for visitors from abroad. Airport traffic grew at an average annual rate of 13% between 2006 and 2017, from 228,000 to 1.12m passengers. Passenger traffic rose a further 23% between the end of July 2017 and the same period of the following year.
Despite this growth, only 4% of the region’s visitors arrive through the airport; the vast majority arrive through railway, bus or car. Therefore, to facilitate tourist access to Fez-Meknes, it will be necessary to upgrade intra- and inter-regional rail and road connectivity.
Fez-Meknes has 335 classified tourist accommodation establishments, with a total capacity of 20,000 beds, which constitute 4% of the country’s hotel capacity. Should tourism continue to increase at its current rate, growth could stress housing resources and increase pressure to invest in accommodation, both to improve the capacity and quality of service of existing facilities, and to increase the number of available rooms through the construction of new hospitality facilities.