Marrakesh & Imil – Ethical Tourism Trip!

As you know, part of Tourism Concern’s mission is to promote ethical travel – travel that benefits the communities and the people we visit. To illustrate how this can be done, we organised a trip to Morocco, with the help of our friends at Discover Ltd.

Discover Ltd have been operating in the area for over 35 years and set up the award winning Kasbah du Toubkal, based on Tourism Concern’s code of conduct for the Himalayas, putting local people and the environment at the forefront of all decisions.

On Thursday 29th September, six of us woke up very early (all part of the holiday fun) to catch our flight to Marrakesh, where we checked in to our beautiful Riad – with its spacious layout, pool, abundance of plants, and that famous Berber hospitality; this Riad offered a tranquil spot right in the heart of bustling city walls.


Milk and Prunes – some of that famous Berber hospitality

We spent some time exploring the city, trying hard to resist buying everything in sight…

Marrakesh – Medina

To avoid temptation, we escaped to the Majorelle gardens, another piece of paradise amidst the bustling city.


Marjarelle Gardens

That evening, we all got better acquainted with each other. On this trip were Mark Watson (Executive Director of Tourism Concern), Helen Jennings (Campaigns Officer for Tourism Concern), and four members of Tourism Concern, Roger, Jessica, Celia and Simon.

After a well needed, very comfortable night’s sleep, a 2-hour breakfast and another gander around the city, we travelled to Imil and the Toubkal National Park.  We commenced with a tour of the village with a local guide, who explained the impact of tourism on the area and showed us around various projects that have arisen from tourism. We saw a rubbish disposal van  that helps the village sort out its waste, paid for by tourists. We saw and heard about the secondary education that is now available to the local women. We visited a little shop that sells ethical tethers that the local women have made for the mules, and read educational pamphlets about mule care. We visited a kitchen where the women learn to make biscuits and cakes to then sell to locals and tourists alike. Most of the initiatives are focused around women as they have been typically excluded from the local economy and are most in need of such projects. These initiatives are funded by the Kasbah du Toubkal who donate the profits generated by the tourists to the community in this way. These initiatives ensure the long-term sustainable benefit this money may have, for the community.  Our tour is rounded off by a marvellous stop at the Rug Shop where we get an explanation and demonstration of the meanings of different patterns and traditions that make up these beautiful tapestries.

 

Local community rug shop

We then check into the Kasbah du Toubkal, meet the staff, drink our deliciously sweet peppermint tea, and breathe in our awe-inspiring surroundings.

  Inside the beautiful Kasbah du Toubkal

Now for the hard part…

We wake up relatively early, put on our hiking gear and met our guide for the next two days.

Our guide: Abdeslam Maachou

I have travelled a lot in my time, and I often, mainly for cost saving purposes, choose not to get a guide, but I realised on this trip how much value they bring to your adventure. Abdel was generous, fun and very knowledgeable: he shared with us his perspective and hopes for himself and the area, and with help from his friends kept us all well fed, and when needed (i.e. 4 am starting the final climb) gave us motivation and enthusiasm for the challenge at hand.

That day we started our assent, a calm, but long walk through the valley, stopping occasionally for some more of that tea and a fantastic lunch by the river.

A wonderful well-deserved lunch

After a long day in the sun, we made it to the refuge, a big hostel filled with people about to head up the mountain. The refuge was basic with limited electricity, but this only seemed to add to its magic. We found our dorm, where we would lie down for a few hours desperately hoping to get a couple of hours sleep with little to no success, irritated by the person next to you snoring away and wondering about all those who have slept on this bed under these blankets before you. I think the Kasbah spoiled us!

After a long day in the sun, we made it to the refuge, a big hostel filled with people about to head up the mountain. The refuge was basic with limited electricity, but this only seemed to add to its magic. We found our dorm, where we would lie down for a few hours desperately hoping to get a couple of hours sleep with little to no success, irritated by the person next to you snoring away and wondering about all those who have slept on this bed under these blankets before you. I think the Kasbah spoiled us!

Mount Toubkal at sunrise. 

3:30

It is wake up time, we quietly gathered our stuff, headed downstairs for some breakfast, put on our head torches and began the hike. I definitely underestimated how big this mountain was. Luckily the stars were shining in all their glory and as all of us live in London – deprived of such a spectacle – it managed effectively to distract us as to what lay ahead.  Our guide, completely un-phased by the altitude and steepness of the mountain, encouraged us along with sweet lies about how flat and close the next section would be…. As we neared the summit the clouds cleared, the sun emerged and the view was spectacular.  We took the mandatory ‘we made it’ photographs, pretending not to be as freezing we were.

The team looking fresh faced at the top – we made it! 

Although a little more awake, the walk down seemed just as hard, but we took our time, to say the least, and a short 15 hours later (!) we made it back to the Kasbah. I went straight for the hammam (traditional steam bath) to soak my poor over used muscles, then we all sat down for the final supper. We sat there, and although we were pleased we had accomplished the hike, we were exhausted, conversation ran dry and we retired early.

We said our goodbyes and headed home the next morning!

It was a new experience for me to go on a pre-organised guided tour.  I confess that I have often carried out minimum research and adopted a very casual approach ‘seeing where the wind took me’.  I now appreciate the other point of view. Our guides, driver, cook, muleteer were local and paid properly; with few options but tourism, these hosts rely on we travellers for their work. All the guides were from the local villages, having work like this means they can stay living in the areas and their communities can prosper. Tourism, when done well, has such a huge potential to connect people and culture and bring prosperity to regions. I met people I would have otherwise not met, eaten food and experienced customs I wouldn’t have been exposed to if I had followed my usual follow the wind approach.  And I came away thinking that the trip really was mutually beneficial, a fair and treasured exchange!

A few ethical travel dilemmas that came to light…..

I have previously written about the issue ofshould I cover up  abroad.  While I continue to ponder on this matter, I fully appreciate that as a guest, I should generally aim to respect local customs.  Logically my answer seems obvious, but I find myself battling with the question every time I visit a country or place with such guidelines and Morocco was no different.  It irritated me, that even when dressing appropriately, I got a lot of unwanted attention, cat-calls, crude comments – and even groped when walking around the medina. If my covering is meant to act as protection and show respect, why wasn’t I being respected?  At what point might a traveller call ‘foul’?

I have also written more generally about the behaviour of tourists when abroad .  Whenever I was asked where I was from and replied the UK or London, the response I got tended to be very positive: you are welcome I was told, this, however curious, made me feel proud. Whilst we were in Imil we kept running into some young lads on their ‘stag do’; at first we were all startled, are they lost we thought?!   This did not seem to be a typical ‘stag do’ location.  Sadly, every time we saw them they seemed to be getting louder and louder, pulling as much attention to themselves as possible, stripping off to swim the river, singing songs and generally just engaging in noisy ‘banter’. The last time we saw them was half way up the mountain, we were heading down and they were debating how ‘worth it’ the very top would be. The assumed ‘stag’ was dressed in drag, an interesting choice. Those lads were just having fun, but it dawned on me how out of place they were.  Everyone could hear and see them, and whilst I am sure they meant no harm, they were guests abroad ‘behaving badly’.  When replying to the regularly asked question: ‘where are they from?’ – I was not proud to admit that they were undeniably British.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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