As Morocco seeks to expand into the Chinese tourism market, the sector needs a serious shakeup.
Essaouira – Morocco has big ambitions for its tourist industry, with China among the sector’s key targets. However, as the Chinese market grows, so too does tension between Moroccan companies and tour companies based in China.
In 2016 Morocco announced a visa exemption for Chinese nationals, the move aimed to facilitate travel between Morocco and China and to develop economic ties.
Since lifting the visa requirement Morocco has seen a massive increase in tourists coming from China, with visits from Chinese nationals reaching 200,000 in 2018—a giant leap from the meager 10,000 travelers in 2015.
Hoping to further capitalize on the new market, in September Morocco signed a “co-marketing partnership” agreement with Ctrip, China’s largest online travel agency, to promote China-Morocco trips.
However, Morocco’s chances of reaching the half million mark could come to nothing if the country’s tourist industry does not learn to adapt to the specific needs of the tourists it hopes to attract.
With the influx of Chinese tourists to Morocco, the country has also seen a rise in Mandarin-speaking, non-certified tour guides operating within the tourist industry, as well as a tendency for Chinese tourists to book their Moroccan trips through Chinese agencies; meaning that much of the revenue is staying in China.
International agency Tourism Review reported earlier this year that “industry professionals complain about competition from the illegal market (run by the Chinese guides).”
The report added that the lack of depth in the service the Chinese guides offer does not encourage tourists to return or recommend the destination.
“The potential is huge. Chinese arrivals are increasing, and their revenues are falling because of the unfair competition that is being made in China is not being tackled by the authorities,” the publication added.
A quick search on Google shows that countless Chinese tour companies are proposing fully guided visits to Morocco. The prices of many of these package tours are all inclusive, meaning that, rather than contributing significantly to Morocco’s tourist revenue, some of the proceeds are transferred from Chinese bank account to Chinese bank account.
Other sites specify that tourists must pay the Chinese tour guide in cash on a day to day basis, as well as covering their lodging and expenses.
Morocco World News spoke to a Moroccan tour guide operating in Fez about what Tourism Review called “unfair competition.”
Fatima Hassan, 53, has been working as a tour guide in one of Morocco’s most popular cities for three years. She outlined for MWN that in order to gain a guide permit, she took written and spoken exams in French, Arabic, and English.
“It’s a big problem in Fez,” Hassan told MWN, referring to the phenomenon of Chinese tour guides operating without licenses in Moroccan cities.
“Many times I have met groups with just Chinese guides, without local tour guides. They take the business away from the national and local tour guides.” Hassan added that the issue is particularly noticeable in the high season and during Chinese national holidays.
“Recently we [tour guides in Fez] were talking about this.” Hassan shared with MWN how she and many other native tour guides are preoccupied about the ongoing problem as Chinese tourists account for a huge proportion of the visitors to Fez every year.
“I hope that the tour guides do something in the guides’ union meeting.”
Fatima Hassan emphasized that she is anxious that the issue does not end in “discussion” and that Morocco’s tourist industry can “find a solution for this problem.”
What Hassan did not share with MWN was the fact that Morocco’s tour guides actually make most of their money on commission in the bazaars. Guiding only pays so much, so, like tourist transport services, guides direct the tourists to certain shops and earn money on every penny spent.
Abdelsamad, a leather boutique owner in Essaouira, told MWN that he has deals with tour guides. The guides recommend his shop and “negotiate” sales for their clients, leaving the shop with a 30% commission.
The boutique owner explained that Chinese tourists often have sizeable shopping budgets, meaning that the Moroccan guides are missing out on potentially lucrative, if not transparent, deals.
Meanwhile, some Chinese tour companies avoid paying extra on souvenir “commissions” by travelling with a host from the tour company and hiring local tour guides when visiting certain destinations. By travelling in a group led by an experienced agent who speaks both Mandarin and the language of the official tour guides, the travellers can avoid potential scams.
“We use offical (sic) tour guide in all major cities,” Liang from Liang Zhang LLC told MWN.
The company is an example of Chinese-Moroccan cooperation, registered in Casablanca, China, and the US.
Liang explained that his clients pay “their own hotels and food inside Morocco 100%,” underlining that his company is not among the Chinese tour companies and agents that divert their revenue outside Morocco.
A ‘passive’ tourist industry
However, the issue is not just a question of “unfair competition.” Olivier Verot, founder and CEO of French-Chinese marketing company the Gentleman Marketing Agency, explained to Morocco World News that Morocco’s inability to increase revenue from the Chinese tourism market has more to do with what Morocco’s tourism sector is not doing than the “problem” posed by Chinese tour guides.
Verot’s agency represents the Royal Mansour Hotel, Marrakech, among other luxury destinations in Morocco and France. According to the tourism marketing expert, it is no surprise that Chinese tourists prefer the guides provided by their tour companies.
“Chinese People would like to speak Chinese,” he said simply. Verot went on to explain that very few Moroccan tour guides speak Mandarin and that there needs to be some language teaching provision to avoid undercutting by Chinese companies.
However, the bigger problem lies in Morocco’s laid back attitude to marketing itself as a tourist destination. “Moroccan travel agencies are also very passive, and most of the tourists are outbound travel, trips are organized and made by Chinese Tour Operators, that do not match with local companies.”
“Most of them [Moroccan tour companies] rely only on partnership with Chinese Tour Operators that do not need their help.”
“Almost no travel agencies, hotel or tourism players have a Chinese Website, or an official WeChat account,” Verot emphasized that Moroccan agencies and tourist destinations need to adapt to the culture and habits of Chinese tourists. “Most Chinese travelers will feel more comfortable reading in their native language, and prefer to use WeChat better than email.”
Verot, whose company also represents several regional French tourist boards, emphasized that the Moroccan tourist industry should not be discouraged. “It is normal, Chinese culture takes time to understand.”
While “the feedback of Morocco from Chinese people is excellent,” the marketing CEO told MWN that Morocco’s tourist agencies, and indeed the Ministry of Tourism, “needs to be more active to attract Chinese people.”
In order to make the most of the visa exemption and profit from a potentially huge revenue from Chinese tourism, Morocco needs to understand that “the Chinese Tourism market is specific, they spend more, and expect more, especially the premium Clients.”
Verot added that trust is a key issue for Chinese tourists, and that they are very worried about “scams.” Moroccan companies, he said, “need to work on that.”
The Royal Mansour in Marrakech, under the expert leadership of Verot’s agency, has seen a significant increase in Chinese clientele. The PR exert explained that this is down to brand trust. The hotel has invested heavily in actively increasing its online presence, particularly on Chinese social media and Baidu (Chinese Google).
Strong marketing strategy
Meanwhile, Morocco’s Agency for Tourism Development (SMIT) aims not only to expand the tourist industry by attracting travellers from China, among other new partners, but also to attract foreign investment.
The agency’s website describes Morocco as “a renowned tourism destination in Africa and one of the most attractive countries in terms of foreign direct investments on a continental scale.” The sector already accounts, directly and indirectly, for an estimated 25% of Morocco’s total workforce, meaning that its success, or lack thereof, will have a massive impact on the Moroccan population.
In May of this year Imad Bakkad, SMIT’s CEO, told World Finance that “tourism is considered to be a development accelerator, which contributes to reducing income inequalities between regions and provides alternative employment opportunities.”
Having underlined the importance of the sector in terms of its potential as an impetus for national development, as well as its enormous role in national employment, the CEO set out the country’s strategy for attracting both more investors and more tourists.
According to Bakkad, and the SMIT website, Morocco’s strategy, or “2020 Vision,” is “structured around eight tourism territories.” Within each of the territories, or regions, SMIT has big plans for development in infrastructure and sustainability.
The agency, however, has even bigger objectives including “Doubling tourist arrivals by doubling the market share on the main European markets as well as attracting 1 million tourists in the emerging markets.”
With China already accounting for 200,000 visitors a year, SMIT is making headway to meeting its objective. However, if the strategy is to be successful, changes in infrastructure and “building 160,000 new hotel beds and 40,000 new beds of luxury tourism residences” will not be enough.
SMIT needs a marketing strategy and an in depth analysis of the cultural expectations of the tourists who will be footing Morocco’s bills and, indirectly, paying the wages of the 2.5 million people the industry employs.
In order to bank the revenue potential of a tourism market like China, Morocco’s tourism sector needs to step up its game, and fast—if Moroccan companies are not meeting the needs of its new and deep-pocketed clients, agencies and companies from outside the kingdom will be quick to fill the vacuum.