The earthquake zone in Morocco now also fears for its livelihoods

by MMC
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Before tourists came to marvel at the valley nestled in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, with its arid red slopes splashed with green and its deep blue lake, the only way to make a living was to grow crops. olives, and not much else at that time. .

Then came the modest little hiking lodge and the luxury resort, and the quasi-palace owned by British entrepreneur Richard Branson and the hostels created by the inhabitants of the Ouirgane valley, many of whom are members of the Amazigh ethnic group, more commonly known as Berbers.

As more tourists discovered in recent decades that the region was only an hour’s drive from the city of Marrakech, residents of villages like Ouirgane gained jobs as mule trekking guides and hiking, drivers, waiters, hoteliers, restaurateurs, etc. .

Many were able to return home from Moroccan cities like Marrakech and Essaouira, where they had found employment to support their families in their villages.

It was a success that Morocco replicated throughout the country. In 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic crippled the sector, tourism accounted for around 7% of the kingdom’s gross domestic product and around half a million jobs, a vital source of growth in a largely agricultural country struggling with drought.

The industry was just beginning to recover from the coronavirus pandemic when the region around Ouirgane was hit by a magnitude 6.8 earthquake, killing more than 2,900 people. Entire villages and towns were destroyed, jeopardizing the businesses that supported them.

The crisis is also likely to deepen inequalities between urban areas, with their gleaming airports, high-speed trains and fancy restaurants, and rural areas that have never received many support services. After the earthquake, villages like Ouirgane suffered from a slow response from authorities and limited aid.

“Tourists come from all over the world and take photos,” said Khalid Ait Abdelkarim, 36, manager of Domaine Malika, an elegant boutique hotel perched in the lush hills of Ouirgane.

He wore a welcoming smile, even though he had spent the last four nights sleeping outside with his wife and 2-year-old daughter after his mudbrick house collapsed.

Since the earthquake, Mr. Ait Abdelkarim said, the hotel has received 50 cancellations, leaving as the only guests a few French journalists covering the disaster. If the high season, which lasts until the fall, was canceled, Mr. Ait Abdelkarim and the dozen other hotel employees would face a difficult winter as they all lost their homes to the earthquake. earth.

“There are families where everyone works in tourism,” said Mr. Ait Abdelkarim.

It was the same situation, or worse, in other hotels in the area. A few had been damaged enough to close, including Mr. Branson’s luxury hotel, Kasbah Tamadot, and Chez Momo II, a guest house built by Mohamed Idel Mouden, originally from Ouirgane.

Khadija Id Mbarek, who sat in a tent next to the remains of her collapsed house in Ouirgane on Tuesday, said she had saved the money she had earned weaving carpets for years to open a cafe primarily aimed at to tourists. She learned to speak Arabic in addition to her native Amazigh to communicate with visitors. By serving food and Moroccan mint tea, she earned enough to build a bed and breakfast.

“Actors came here, foreigners, drivers, tour guides. I had so many friends,” she said. “I worked so hard. I sweated so much. I did everything for my daughters. She said two of her children – two girls – had died in the earthquake.

Although seen as a bright spot in North Africa thanks to sectors such as tourism and electric vehicle manufacturing, Morocco’s economy was under pressure long before the earthquake. It slowed down sharply between 2021 and 2022 due to drought and rising commodity prices, which affected imports, according to World Bank data.

“This is an absolutely devastating event for people in rural areas,” said Max Gallien, a political scientist at the Institute of Development Studies in Britain, who specializes in the Middle East and North Africa.

In many Amazigh villages deep in the Atlas Mountains, roads were poor, medical care was distant, and schooling was limited even before the earthquake.

Mr. Ait Abdelkarim said a law requiring residents of villages like Asni, where he is from, to build in the traditional Amazigh style, in order to preserve the rustic and picturesque appearance of the region for the benefit of tourists , could have contributed to the devastation. Lifting the requirement would have allowed villagers to build sturdier houses, he said.

“We are not against tourists taking photos and coming to Morocco. We even welcome them into our homes. This is what Moroccans do,” he said. “But we also deserve good lives.”

Amine Kabbaj, a Marrakech-based architect, said traditional architecture could meet seismic construction standards if built with the help of experts.

It is the tourists who keep these villages and other parts of the country afloat. To save revenue and jobs, tour operators and businesses outside the hardest-hit areas tried to do business as usual this week, and often succeeded.

Tourists got lost as they always did in the old medina of Marrakech; They chatted at the Kenzi Rose Garden Hotel breakfast buffet about the thin crust pizza they had last night and what they were going to see today. A major tour operator issued an update noting that tourist destinations beyond the earthquake zone, including the ancient city of Fez, the Sahara and the blue-walled city of Chefchaouen, were doing very well.

With that in mind, a uniformed staff member at Olinto, a luxurious new retreat set in a gently whispering olive grove near Ouirgane, manned the front door with seemingly perfect calm Tuesday afternoon, even though he had passed the last nights in a tent. .

“The best way to help Morocco is to visit it,” said José Abete, an American who opened Olinto with his French-Italian partner last year. They were preparing to welcome their first guests since the earthquake, who had not revised their plan to stay 16 days.

Olinto and a neighboring hotel, Domaine Malika, suffered some cracks and broken objects.

At Chez Momo II, so named because the owner had to rebuild the original Chez Momo to move it away from a dam, the restaurant and two rooms upstairs collapsed in the earthquake.

It felt like a landslide had stopped just short of the pool’s edge. In the lobby, paintings, traditional Amazigh doors and vintage objects that the owner, Mr. Mouden, had lovingly collected over the years were hung crooked.

Mr. Mouden, 45, was busy on Tuesday serving tea to passers-by and dropping off donated supplies in Ouirgane, his hometown. He was optimistic that the government would help fund the reconstruction, given the local importance of tourism.

“Since everyone is hurt, why should I feel bad about it? I like to build anyway,” he said. “There was Momo I, there was Momo II, and now there will be a Momo III.”

Yassine Oulhiq And Matthew Mpoke Bigg reports contributed.

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