United Nations — The crème de la crème of Hollywood was in Marrakech, Morocco, for the wedding of British movie star Idris Elba in April this year. Elba tied the knot with his Canadian model girlfriend, former Miss Vancouver Sabrina Dhowre, at the Ksar Char-Bagh hotel, an exquisite Alhambra-style hotel.
Kenyan-Mexican Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o, American actress Jessica Alba, soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal and others have all embraced the glamour of the rose-coloured city of Marrakech and its plethora of tourist attractions, including the vibrant Jemaa el-Fnaa square and the picturesque Majorelle Garden.
Morocco draws tourists from the far corners of the world. They may be seen strolling along the Corniche in Casablanca - an oceanfront boardwalk lined with restaurants, nightclubs, theatres and hotels - or dining at one of the small cafés in the quiet city of Azemmour - nha short day trip or overnight jaunt from the big city.
Adil El Fakir, director of the Moroccan National Tourist Office (ONMT), says that over 12 million tourists visited Morocco in 2018, of whom 2.4 million headed for Marrakech.
Morocco's tourist attractions include the spectacular beaches of Essaouira, an Atlantic coastal town included on the World Heritage List of UNESCO since 2001, and the country's mountains, particularly the Atlas and the Rif.
"Tourism is a terrific land-use tool, and our territory is rich in its activities, its landscape, its heritage, its culture and its gastronomy," declares Mohamed Benamour, a former president of the Morocco Tourism Federation.
A cultural crossroad
The country is also a cultural hub, reflecting the diversity of its inhabitants' national origins: sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and the Middle East. This crossroads attracts fashion designers, artists, filmmakers and other cultural tourists.
In 2017, for example, a museum on the international luxury fashion house Yves Saint Laurent opened in Morocco. "Marrakech taught me colour. Before Marrakech, everything was black," Saint Laurent once noted.
Over 50 Hollywood motion pictures have been shot in the country, including Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much; Lawrence of Arabia, directed by David Lean; Orson Welles' Othello; Jesus of Nazareth, directed by the late Franco Zeffirelli; and the latest James Bond movie, Spectre.
The country is also becoming a major hub for international conferences due to its proximity to Europe, Middle East, the Americas and the rest of Africa. The country recently hosted the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which brought about 20,000 participants to Marrakech.
Last year, the Global Forum for Migration and Development and the conference on the adoption of the Global Compact for Migration were held in Marrakech and attracted representatives from most UN member states and nongovernmental organizations.
In March the city hosted the Conference of African Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development on "fiscal policy, trade and the private sector in the digital era: a strategy for Africa", which was organized by the UN Economic Commission for Africa.
This year, UNESCO's first International Forum on Artificial Intelligence in Africa and the Africa Youth Leadership Summit, among other events, will take place in Marrakech. These international conferences shine a spotlight on the country while contributing to the economy.
Tourism revenues account for 11% of total GDP, according to the tourism ministry. Industries in the sector, such as air and land transport, food service and hospitality, generate significant employment opportunities for young people. Morocco was the most visited country in Africa in 2016, with 10.3 million tourist arrivals.
Despite the potentials in the tourism sector, climate change effects threaten to put a dampener. In 2015, for example, Morocco's economic growth nosedived to 1.5% due to drought, according to the World Bank. To address the situation, the country is constructing the world's largest desalination plant, which turns seawater into drinking water, in Agadir, near the Atlantic coast.
It has also set ambitious goals that focus on, among others, generating 52% of its electricity needs from renewables by 2030 and improving coastal zone management.
Regulatory reforms introduced in 2010 are bringing Morocco closer to its goal of making the country one of the world's 20 leading tourist destinations by 2020. Its 10-year plan, dubbed Vision 2020, is aimed at creating eight new tourist destinations and 470,000 new jobs while doubling tourist receipts.
That goal is within reach, it seems. The country has set its sights on a good slice of the 1.4 billion global tourists traveling abroad annually, many of whom are Chinese. Following Moroccan king Mohammed VI's visit to Beijing in 2016, the number of Chinese arrivals in Morocco skyrocketed to 180,000 in 2018, up from 42,000 in 2016.
By 2020 Morocco hopes to reach the 500,000 mark, according to the Moroccan National Tourist Office, a wing of ONMT.
Investing in tourism
Massive investments in new infrastructure, such as new airport terminals, roads and railways, and the relaxed visa requirements for citizens of some countries, such as China, are two factors in Morocco's success.
Thanks to the new airport terminal in Casablanca that was opened earlier in 2019, the airport can now handle up to 14 million passengers a year, up from 7 million. Another newly built terminal in the Rabat-Salé Airport can now handle 4 million passengers a year, up from 1.5 million.
Investments in airport infrastructure have had a domino impact on the broader economy. For example, the Rabat airport expansion is transforming the neighbouring city of Kenitra into a fast-growing industrial hub, attracting international companies such as Groupe PSA, the French company that manufactures Peugeot and Citroën.
"[The economic growth of] Kenitra has exceeded our expectations," says Moulay Hafid Elalamy, minister of industry, investment, trade and the digital economy.
With improving infrastructure, safety and security, Morocco is on its way to becoming a premier destination for an increasing number of tourists.
This article was first published by Africa Renewal.