Categories: Features Morocco

Why Tourists in Morocco Shouldn’t Look Away from Poverty

Tourists traveling in Morocco often say the economic disparities make them feel “uncomfortable.” Here is why we should look the ugly side of Morocco in the eye.

Essaouira – The Lonely Planet recently listed Morocco among the top 10 most beautiful countries in the world. The beauty of Ouarzazate, Ifrane, the Atlas Mountains, and the architecture of cities like Fez and Marrakech is undeniable, but behind the awe-inspiring, mesmerising facade of beauty lurks the ugly side of Morocco. 

To be clear, I love Morocco, and it is beautiful, but, over the past three years, I have had to learn to embrace the not-so-beautiful side.

This morning, for example, as I sat sipping my first coffee of the day at a picturesque cafe in the countryside outside Essaouira, from the roof terrace I gazed over miles of open space, of Argan trees, goats, and sheep roaming free in the morning sun. Then, an old man wearing a traditional jellaba rode past on a donkey. Idyllic, stereotypical Morocco, you might be thinking.

Old building in Essaouira. Photo Credit: Madeleine Handaji/Morocco World News


On the contrary, I know the man. His brown jellaba is dirty and patched, and he is thin and fragile. He rides past every morning and every night on a tour of the region’s bins. His dinner this evening will be someone else’s trash. 

This is just one example of the social disparity and poverty I see daily in Morocco. However it still upsets me to hear tourists’ comments and read reports saying that Moroccans see tourists as “walking wallets,” or worse. 

One comment about Morocco on a World Nomads article was really shocking. “Before going I asked many people about it and most told me of the beauty of Morocco. Maybe I am missing something here, but I really had a hard time getting past the overwhelming poverty, smell, scam artists and just plain gross.”

Photo credit: Madeleine Handaji/Morocco World News

It got worse, and, as someone who has chosen Morocco as my home, I actually felt rather offended by the next sentence. Morocco is not really all that beautiful considering with every step you see starving kittens, abused donkeys, abused women & children and the stink of human/animal waste.”

I take issue with much of this comment, but it is simply not true to say that tourists witness these horrific scenes with “every step.” There are, of course, places in Morocco that are unsavory but, frankly, that is just insulting.

Meanwhile, Michael Russnow, a former US Senate aide, wrote an article for the Huffington Post suggesting that “if more people boycotted such countries and strongly affected the billions of dollars that tourism brings in, perhaps the governments would do something to eradicate the misery that has caused so many of its citizens to behave no better than animals.”

I must admit that that particular article was an eye-opener for me—I had no idea that people could be so callous. The citizens who “behave no better than animals” are, in fact, a deeply human, dignified, and prideful people who, despite their financial struggles, represent a rich and extraordinary culture. Furthermore, the idea that “boycotting” poor countries would inspire governments to address the social disparities just seems ridiculous to me. 

Photo credit: Madeleine Handaji/Morocco World News

Morocco, for example, already has government targets and development programs in place, and every year the levels of poverty do decrease, but it is not going to happen over night. In 2018, the World Bank described the improvement of living standards in Morocco since 2001 as “visible,” with monetary poverty and vulnerability falling “to 4.8 and 12.5% respectively.”

However, there is still a long way to go. When the colonial powers left countries like Morocco, they left them in a mess, and, after all, one would not make a meal without doing the washing up afterwards. 

Now, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but this is mine: Morocco is beautiful, despite the shocking levels of poverty. And, choosing to turn away from, or even, “boycott” the social disparity is not going to make it go away, just like hiding under the covers does not make Mondays disappear. 

The facts speak for themselves; Morocco’s GDP per capita for 2019 is only 27% of the world’s average, at $3,357.40. Meanwhile, according to the Borgen Project, 4 million Moroccans are living under the poverty line and according to the World Bank, 45.1% of Moroccans say that they struggle to make ends meet. 

So, when tourists “on a budget” complain about that extra dirham, I would remind them that the very fact that they are able to buy a plane ticket and own a passport places them in a different financial universe from the average Moroccan. 

Yes, it is annoying knowing full well that you are paying “tourist prices.” And, yes, holidays are supposed to be about escapism. But as tourists we need to stop hiding under the duvet. Morocco, and other countries like it, cannot resolve all of their social problems just because we want a relaxing, stress-free holiday. However, the revenue going into the country from our holiday may well help.

In 2016, Morocco’s tourist industry brought in MAD 57.8 billion to the national economy, and in 2018 that figure rose to MAD 73.15 billion. By following the advice of our friend the former US Senate aide and boycotting Morocco, we would be doing its people more harm than good. 

If the economic arguments have not convinced you to get out from under the covers and look both sides of Morocco in the eye, maybe this will. When we fall in love with a person, we fall in love with every aspect of them because we need to know and understand the “ugly side” to know the person.

My husband, like Morocco, is very beautiful. He has almond-shaped, amber eyes with long dark lashes that our son has inherited. He has a magnetic smile and an easy laugh. However, he also snores, hates responding to WhatsApp messages, and insists that he does not like carrots. That second set of facts does not cancel out the first. On the contrary, the imperfections of a person are what makes them unique and, in some cases, more beautiful.

Poverty, social disparities, and injustice are not beautiful, but they are part of a beautiful and fascinating country and society. When you visit Morocco, do not look away from them because they will help you to understand Morocco and its people as a whole. 

And besides, I don’t think tourists come to Morocco to see soulless monuments and trees; they come because of the rich and ancient history of the Moroccan people. They come to witness a unique culture, with its beautiful and ugly sides, that is constantly evolving and developing.

Now, if you still want to look away, consider this: If it were you struggling to feed your family, would you like tourists to ignore you, embarrassed and offended by your presence in your own country, or allow you the dignity of being an equal in their eyes?