Rabat – The city of Ouarzazate, known as “Morocco’s Hollywood,” is suffering from decreasing touristic activity, which has heavily impacted its economy. Local actors invited officials and businessmen to a conference to figure out what went wrong.
“This region had been victim of an image attributed to it, that it’s poor and isolated.” So said El Habib Choubani, the president of the Draa-Tafilalet region, which includes Ouarzazate and four other provinces.
On Saturday, November 4, a panel organized by the city’s municipal council and the Conseil de Développement et de la Solidarité (CDS), a think tank with a focus on social and economic issues, gathered representatives of the region’s government, business sector, and film industry. The goal was to discuss the ways to overcome the problems facing the region in these sectors.
The first issue discussed was the isolation of Ouarzazate. The panelists pointed repeatedly to the problem of the area’s inaccessibility, which has prevented it from properly exploiting its tourism potentials.
“Difficult access, whether by ground or airline transportation, makes Ouarzazate seem disconnected with the rest of Morocco and the world,” said the panelists.
And this has even impacted the cinema activity. Ouarzazate and its surrounding areas are mostly famous for their cinema studios and film locations, which have attracted prominent film and television productions worldwide, including Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Mummy (1999), Gladiator (2000), Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatre, Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Ben-Hur (2010), and Game of Thrones (2011).
“Now, the region’s accessibility problems drives away international film productions, which find it easier to travel to Cape Town in South Africa or Amman in Jordan,” deplored a panelist in reference to two of Morocco’s main cinema competitors.
Generally speaking, the panelists also deplored the opportunity cost caused by the absence of cultural tourism, which they said needs to be strengthened by building museums for example.
“It’s high time Ouarzazate has its own cinema festival. ‘Symphonies du Désert’ should be resurrected,” said Mohamed Benamor, CDS president, referring to the music and cinema festival of the region launched in 1990s.
More urgent than culture is the problem of the roads. For decades, subsequent governments have been talking about the construction of the Tichka tunnel, which would allow vehicles to avoid the titular mountain between Marrakech with Ouarzazate.
Vehicles currently spend around four hours traveling the 200 kilometers between the two cities, part of which run through the dangerous Tizi N Tichka mountain road, which has taken the lives of many drivers in past years.
This awaited project requires a budget of about MAD 8 billion. “The construction of the tunnel is the region’s main demand,” said Aderrahmane Drissi, the president of the municipal council of Ouarzazate.
Recently, Minister of Transport Abdelkader Amara said in a parliament session that his department launched a call for tender to conduct studies for the project by the end of this year.
Limited air traffic service is also a problem. “The region remains among the most ill-served in Morocco in terms of flights,” noted Benamor, who is also investor and owner of the major hotels in the city.
Three flights link Ouarzazate and Casablanca, a number regional actors believe is far too low. In addition, the relatively high-priced ticket – MAD 600 for one way – worsens the situation.
“To date the region has reached an agreement to increase the number of flights to six and reduce the ticket price to MAD 400,” said Choubani.
Aside from that, Ouarzazate is also in need of an effective PR campaign. In June 2016 the city’s image was seriously affected by the statements of Prison Break actor Dominic Purcell, injured while shooting the fifth season of the television series in the city, who criticized Ouarzazate’s deplorable health facilities.