Merging bazaars with boutiques, tradition with modernity, Marrakesh walks a tightrope stretching between past and present. Caravanserai culture and craft heritage sit alongside a contemporary arts scene that brings festivals, design initiatives and tourism to its door. But while dynamic entrepreneurs steer the Red City forward, rapid growth has brought along its attendant problems. Congestion, pollution, and creeping urbanisation pose environmental issues, while the recent economic downturn has exposed the fragility of depending upon a tourism-driven economy.
Tourism Economy's Boom and Slump
Close enough to Europe for a city break, yet far enough away to qualify as an exotic holiday, Marrakesh has long been Morocco's prime tourist destination. Low-cost airlines flying directly into the city, along with the restoration of boutique riad accommodation in the medina further boosted traveller numbers in the first decade of the 21st century. The Red City's dependence on tourism has caused issues in recent years, however. Both terrorism – in Marrakesh (2011) and in Europe (2015 and 2016) – and West Africa's Ebola crisis played a role in the recent decline of European visitors, who represent 80% of the city's tourists.
On the ground though – particularly if you've just stumbled into town from a more rural region – it's clear Marrakesh is weathering the downturn better than other Moroccan destinations. Tourist crowds may be smaller but are still highly visible. New museums, attractions and restaurant openings throughout the city, as well as continuing restoration projects on medina heritage sites, all show a confidence in Marrakesh retaining its crown as Morocco's tourism and cultural centre.
Wealth Disparity in the Red City
While money has flooded into Marrakesh since the 1980s, the surrounding Atlas region has seen much less investment and opportunity, leading to a huge population expansion as rural villagers migrate to the city seeking work. Informal settlements and bidonvilles (shanty towns) have sprung up in the city where inhabitants live in overcrowded, squalid conditions, without access to proper sanitation facilities. Meanwhile, in the medina itself many poorer families inhabit old, substandard buildings which they lack the funds to maintain while money is pumped into facilities such as golf courses to attract more tourists to the city.
In 2004 King Mohammed VI launched a Morocco-wide scheme to eradicate slum dwellings and provide adequate, affordable housing for all Moroccans. The construction of the suburb of Tamansourt, seven kilometres northwest of Marrakesh, was part of this plan, with the building of social housing part of the suburb project. Although the scheme has been hailed as a forward step in breaking the poverty cycle while also stemming Marrakesh's urban sprawl by some, others argue that it is cleansing the poor from the central city to make way for more gentrification and foreign investment.
Marrakesh, City of Permanent Renewal
Launched in 2014 by King Mohammed VI, the 'Marrakesh City of Permanent Renewal' program is pumping Dh6.3 billion into the Red City to upgrade its facilities and infrastructure. As well as investing in heritage projects – new museums and the restoration of historic monuments, buildings and the city walls – new schools, public hospitals, cultural centres and sports facilities are on the planning books.
The program aims to also tackle the city's traffic congestion with new bus lanes to ease central city traffic and the main bus station (gare routière), currently situated at Bab Doukkala, being moved out to the suburbs. Access for mobility-impaired inhabitants and visitors is also to be improved.
Saving an Ancient Tradition
Marrakesh has a strong tradition of hikayat (oral storytelling). For centuries, history soaked in myth, as well as fictional ancient epics of heroic derring-do and morality tales, have been passed down through the generations by storytellers whose narrative skills were highly prized and sought after. This popular art form was not just for entertainment. It was a vital tool for passing on knowledge about the wider world.
Djemaa El Fna is thought to have been firmly established as a central platform for storytellers by the 11th century. It is because of this age-old tradition that Unesco declared the Djemaa El Fna a 'Masterpiece of World Heritage' in 2001.
Today though, there are fewer and fewer storytellers. In the 20th century, the advent of radio, television and the internet has eroded their once-important role. Djemaa El Fna's traditional storytellers, who spent years learning their craft, are all either nearing retirement or already retired. The city's famed square is now a hub for more boisterous performances and musical acts.
A resurgent interest in saving hikayat from extinction has recently emerged. A project at Cafe Clock has partnered a famous Djemaa storyteller with a group of young local apprentices who perform his tales in English, bringing the rich art of Moroccan storytelling to a wider audience.