Morocco is a pretty safe country that can be navigated with a bit of common sense, but there are a few things to be aware of:
A minor irritation is the ever-changing street names in Moroccan cities. For years, there’s been a slow process of replacing old French, Spanish and Berber names with Arabic ones. The result so far is that, depending on whom you talk to, what map you use or which part of the street you are on, you’re likely to see up to three different names.
The general Arabic word for street is sharia, or derb in medinas (zankat for smaller ones). The French avenue, boulevard and rue are still common. In the north and far south you’ll still find the Spanish calle and avenida.
Street names won’t help much in the labyrinthine medinas, although in theory a compass might. If you feel you’re getting lost, stick to the main paths (which generally have a fair flow of people going either way) and you’ll soon reach a landmark or exit. Kids will sometimes offer to direct you for a few dirhams; corner shops are better places to ask for directions. Carry a business card from your hotel to show.
On the whole, theft is not a huge problem in Morocco. Travellers can minimise risk by being vigilant (but not paranoid) in the major cities and taking some basic precautions. When wandering around the streets, keep the valuables you carry to a minimum and keep what you must carry around with you well hidden.
Be vigilant when withdrawing money from ATMs. External money pouches attract attention. Neck pouches or money belts worn under your clothes attract less attention. They are better places to keep your money, passport and other important documents, but keep a small amount of everyday cash easily accessible to avoid having to flash your stash.
If you prefer to keep things in your room (preferably locked inside your suitcase), nine times out of 10 you’ll have no trouble. Rooms in top-end hotels often have safes. Other hotels sometimes have a safe at reception, where you could stow valuables such as a camera.
Leaving anything in a car, even out of sight, is asking for trouble.
In the large cities, notably Casablanca, there are some desperate people, and physical attacks on foreigners occasionally occur.
Treat the medinas with particular caution at night. The medinas in Marrakesh, Casablanca and Tangier have a particular reputation for petty theft. A common tactic is for one person to distract you while another cleans out your pockets. Late-night knife crime isn't uncommon.
Morocco’s notorious hustlers and faux guides (unofficial guides) remain an unavoidable part of the Moroccan experience. Brigades touristiques (tourist police) have been set up in the principal tourist centres, and anyone suspected of trying to operate as an unofficial guide could face jail and/or a huge fine. This has greatly reduced, if not eliminated, the problem.
You’ll generally find faux guides hanging around the entrances to the big cities’ medinas, and outside bus, train and ferry stations. Having a siege mentality would be an overreaction. Indeed, when arriving in a place for the first time, you might benefit from the services of a guide, official or otherwise.
Although high unemployment rates drive the numbers of faux guides, not all are complete imposters. Many are very experienced and speak half a dozen languages.
Sometimes their main interest is the commission gained from certain hotels or on articles sold to you in the souqs.
Agree on a price before setting off on a tour. Set some parameters on what you expect to see and the number of shops you’re taken to. If you don’t want a shopping expedition included in your tour, make this clear beforehand.
Unofficial guides charge around Dh50 to Dh100 per day. Rates should always be per guide, not per person.
A few dirham will suffice if you want to be guided to a specific location (like a medina exit).
Whatever you give, you’ll often get the ‘you can’t possibly be serious’ look. The best reply is the ‘I’ve just paid you well over the odds’ look.
Maintain your good humour and, after a couple of days in a place, the hassle tends to lessen considerably.
Official guides can be engaged through tourist offices and some hotels at the fixed price of around Dh250/300 per day (plus tip) for a local/national guide.
It’s well worth taking a guide when exploring Fez and Marrakesh medinas. The guide can help you find interesting sights and shops in the melee, stop you from getting lost and save you from being hassled by other would-be guides.
Drivers should note that motorised hustlers operate on the approach roads to Fez and Marrakesh. These motorcycle nuisances are keen to find you accommodation and so on, and can be just as persistent as their counterparts on foot.
Travellers disembarking from (and embarking on) the ferry in Tangier may receive some hassle from touts and hustlers.
Arriving by train in cities like Fez and Marrakesh, you may run into ‘students’ or similar, with the uncanny knowledge that your preferred hotel is closed or full, but they just happen to know this great little place…
Faux guides abound in tourist hot-spots, hustling to 'help' you and earn some commission from souvenir shops. The following are useful tactics for dealing with unwanted attention:
Morocco’s era as a hippie paradise, riding the Marrakesh Express and all that, has been consigned to history. Marijuana (known as kif) is widely grown in the Rif Mountains. It’s illegal to buy, sell or consume marijuana or hashish in Morocco. If you're going to smoke kif, don't do it in public and be extremely circumspect about who you buy it from.
If caught with marijuana, you may be looking at a fine and, in the worst case, a prison sentence. Although some locals smoke marijuana as a recreational pastime, as a tourist you’re more vulnerable.
Many Moroccan stories of extortion and rip-offs are drug-related. Recent legislation and a hard government line may have forced dealers to give up their more aggressive tactics, but the hassle has not disappeared.
A traditional ploy is to get you stoned, force you to buy a piece of hash the size of a brick and then turn you over to the police (or at least threaten to). Once you’ve purchased hash, or even just smoked some, you’re unlikely to call the cops, and the hustlers know it.
New arrivals should ignore late-night offers of hashish. These dealers have a sixth sense for greenness and won’t miss an opportunity to squeeze ridiculous amounts of money out of frightened people.
Issaguen (Ketama) and the Rif Mountains are Morocco’s kif-growing heartland. Issaguen in particular can be a bag-load of trouble, and is best avoided unless you’re accompanied by a reliable guide.
You may occasionally be offered majoun, a traditional sticky fudge made of butter, dried fruits, seeds, spices – and cannabis resin. A small ball of majoun can send you reeling (see Paul Bowles’ Their Heads Are Green or Let It Come Down for descriptions).
Anyone with a slight tendency to paranoia when smoking weed should be aware that this is a common reaction among first-time majoun munchers.
Although the Spanish police have a relaxed attitude towards small amounts of cannabis for private use, Spanish customs will come down hard on people entering the country from Morocco in possession of the drug, and you could be done for trafficking. If you’re taking a car across, the chances that it will be searched are high. Never carry parcels or drive vehicles across borders for other people.
For the latest travel information refer to the following websites:
Australian Department of Foreign Affaris (www.smartraveller.gov.au)
Canadian Consular Services Bureau (www.voyage.gc.ca)
Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.mofa.go.jp)
New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (www.safetravel.govt.nz)
UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (www.fco.gov.uk/travel)
US State Department (www.travel.state.gov)