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  18 May 2022, 08:21

Morocco 'breathing again' as tourists back after Covid shutdown

MARRAKESH, Morocco, May 18, 2022 (BSS/AFP) - Moroccan snake-charmer Youssef
watched as long-absent tourists again thronged Marrakesh's famous Jamaa El-
Fna square, ending a long pause forced by the Covid pandemic.

"We're breathing again," he said.

The ancient southern city, famous for its views of graceful red buildings set
against palm trees and snow-capped mountains, has long drawn visitors
including celebrities from Madonna to Yves Saint Laurent.

But it was particularly hard hit by a two-year collapse in tourism that saw
arrivals to the North African kingdom plummet to just a third last year from
2019.

For Youssef, taking a break from playing his oboe-like "ghaita" pipe before
the seemingly mesmerised serpent, "it's such a pleasure to be back here after
these slow, painful months".

Tourism -- which accounts for some seven percent of Morocco's economy and
creates hundreds of thousands of formal and informal jobs -- was battered by
Morocco's tight restrictions during the pandemic.

Today, Marrakesh residents see signs of hope again as tourists have returned
to the UNESCO-listed old city's narrow alleys.

Cafe terraces are full and foreigners browse shops and market stalls for
traditional clothing, furniture and souvenirs.

"We're not back to pre-pandemic levels but the situation has been improving
over the past month," said salesman Abdellah Bouazri, after serving an
Argentinian customer in a Boca Juniors football top.

Bouazri, 35, said the coronavirus had forced him to temporarily abandon his
shop and find alternative work as a security guard.

The father of two was one of many in the beleaguered industry forced to find
an alternative income -- including many informal workers without contracts or
social security.

But he said he was optimistic about the future: "It has been hard, but today
I'm delighted to be going back to my real job."

- 'Recovery incomplete' -

Morocco this week reopened land borders with the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta
and Melilla, two years after they were shut due to Covid and a major
diplomatic row.

That was the latest step in a slow recovery for the tourism sector, backed by
the government which has launched a two billion dirham (190 million euro)
support fund, on top of 95 million euros it released to prop up hotels.

"The recovery might be underway, but it's incomplete," said the FNIH national
hotels federation's chief Lahcen Zelmat.

According to the tourism ministry, Morocco last year earned some 3.2 billion
euros in tourism revenue -- less than half the figure for the year before the
pandemic.

But revenue in the first quarter was up by 80 percent on last year, according
to official figures, and the finance ministry predicts a "more favourable
outlook for 2022".

That was reflected in the steady flow of tourists outside the Medersa Ben
Youssef, a 16th-century Koranic school in Marrakesh.

"This place is magical -- I'm impressed by all the detail," said Nick, a 29-
year-old Londoner visiting for the first time. "Since Covid I've been missing
exploring new cultures."

Nearby, other visitors queued up to the Yves Saint Laurent museum, one of the
city's top tourist spots.

"The museum was a must," said Coco, a Chinese student living in Germany. "We
consider ourselves very lucky to be able to travel again, and we're really
charmed."

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