MARRAKECH—Following an unmatched decade of tourism and hotel development, Morocco’s new King-driven vision for a second era of escalating bed numbers and tourism investment has been shaken rather than stirred by events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
The situation has been particularly severe in Marrakech, the country’s leading tourism destination and hub of luxury hotel development, where according to L’Economiste 20,000 hotel nights had been cancelled since a flash of violent protests on 20 February, and reservations for the usual high season period of March to May dropped by 40%.
The set-back comes amid flourishing hotel expansion countrywide and a good start to the year, with a 15% hike in visitor arrival and 19% increase in hotel nights in January reported by the Moroccan Tourism Observatory.
As Marrakech suffered consequences of the Arab-world crisis, the Regional Tourism Council (CTM) of Agadir–Morocco’s leading coastal destination—reported an annual gain of 23% in tourist arrivals and 25% in hotel nights.
Under King Mohammed VI’s “Vision 2020” to bring visitor numbers to 18 million by 2020, the cultural and seaside markets are expected to account for 80% of total tourists said Ghali Kabbaj, sales coordinator of Kenzi Hotels, Morocco’s leading domestic hotel group, with 11 4-star and 5-star hotels concentrated in Marrakech and Casablanca. “Vision 2010, which aimed for 10 million foreign tourists, almost hit its mark, now the King wants Morocco to become one of world’s top 20 tourism destinations (it is currently ranked as 25th).”
According to Morocco’s hotel industry union, the Fédération nationale de l’industrie hôtelière, hotel beds almost doubled with the previous Vision 2010, as visitor numbers soared from 4 million to 9.3 million. “In the decade 2000-2010, 230,000 beds were added, those in seaside resorts rose from 30,000 to 160,000 … with total investments in the hotel sector of US$3.7 billion,” according to the organization’s website.
As tourism contribution to gross domestic product doubled to 20%, Moroccan tourism department statistics show bed numbers across the country rose from 97,001 in 2001, to 152,936 in 2008 and 175,000 in 2010.
Despite the current seasonal setback in Marrakech, enthusiasm and expansion remain at a high, with anticipated openings of several leading luxury brands throughout the year: Raffles, Four Seasons, Royal Palm by Beachcomber, Monte Carlo SBM Resorts and Park Hyatt. The Mandarin Oriental is still in the works, despite reported hiccups in the group’s development.
Luxury brand openings
Marrakech maintains its pull for luxury brand openings. In the footsteps of Lucien Barriére and Aman Resorts, “Monte-Carlo SBM is exporting to Morocco a certain idea of luxury and savoir faire”, CEO Bernard Lambert said.
Established operators view the arrival of prestigious new brands favorably. “Competition will lead to growth in the market and greater professionalization among local and international operators,” said Marc Thépot, VP of Risma, Accor’s investment arm in Morocco, which has helped acquire and finance 27 hotels across the group’s brands with US$440 million investments in the past decade.
“In 2011, there will be 4,292 more beds,” said Kenzi’s Kabbaj, “then a further 4,248 in 2012. I am very optimistic about this because aside from traditional markets such as France, Germany and the (United Kingdom) there are markets still not exploited, like the (United States), China and Russia, though the airlines are yet to establish the flights to allow them to flourish.”
Even with the increasing visitor numbers, hotel occupancy rates still hover at a national average of 39% in January, according to the National Tourism Observatory. Vision 2010 had forecast 70% occupancy.
Nevertheless, Didier Escartin, hotel consultant and GM of the Atlantic Palace in Agadir, claimed robust hotel construction in the main destinations–Marrakech, Agadir, Casablanca, Rabat, Tangier and El Jadida—will help meet a serious shortage. “There are not enough hotels in Morocco and not enough with international standards, thus there are many hotels under development. Marrakech is the first city as far as new openings; the second city to now emerge is Tangier.”
|Didier Escartin, hotel consultant and GM of the Atlantic Palace
Escartin said the King had been the hotel industry’s best friend by pushing an open skies policy, backing hotel construction, easing the credit system for foreign investors and expending on infrastructure such as roads.
Some serious “headaches” remain, he said, for those like himself who dream of launching a 2-star to 3-star hotel group. “In Morocco you have many high class hotels, but other than Ibis, you will find no international or national budget brands. The problem is finding the site - prices in Marrakech are as expensive as they are in Paris.
“Accor is now developing its 2-star chain Etap. They have no competition, because they have a very long experience in Morocco finding the land and negotiating.”
To redress this problem, the Plan Azur will see private and public sector partners pump US$3 billion into new hotels and infrastructure in six new coastal zones, close to airports such as Tangier, Casablanca and Agadir, with 180,000 new beds.
On the north and west coasts of Morocco, new coastal destinations have sprung up around new hotels, such as the Atlantic-facing Mazagan Beach Resort in El Jadida—the 5-star, 500-bed hotel is the largest in the country.
“My biggest challenge is to explain to the international market that Morocco is not only Marrakech—that there are other destinations—and to diversify Morocco’s image,” said Mazagan managing director Marie-Béatrice Lallemand. Just 18 months after opening, Mazagan is averaging 65% occupancy, with a flourishing meetings and incentives market benefiting from its proximity to Casablanca, where business tourism accounts for 70% of the market.
Last year Accor rebranded its Sofitel in El Jadida into the Pullman Mazagan Royal Golf & Spa to tap into the growing business-leisure market. Accor has clearly seen the market potential. A US$200-million investment plan will culminate in 11 new hotels by 2013, a near tripling of bed capacity (from 2,000 to 5,700) and of its turnover, Thépot said.
Mazagan Beach Resort in Morocco.
Initial developments would focus on Marrakech, Casablanca, Agadir, Tangier, Rabat, El Jadida and Fez, followed by medium sized cities, as the group puts a priority on the business tourism market, according to Thépot.
“Two more Sofitels are currently being built in Agadir and Casablanca, (the Sofitel Essaouira Medina & Spa opened in March), there will be more Ibis hotels, 1 Novotel and 8 low-cost Etap Hôtels, which on their own account for an outlay of US$50 million,” Thépot said
The Etap and Ibis chains were aiming for 25 hotels each within a decade, (the 16th Ibis, Moussafir de Tanger, opened in Tangier’s new business zone in February), while Novotel would expand “on the strength of its successes in Casablanca and Marrakech.”
Thépot attributed Accor’s durability in Morocco to the quality of its local business partners, and its service, modernity and brand identity.
Domestic hotel groups, such as Kenzi and Atlas Hospitality, are investing and expanding. Atlas, part of Royal Air Morocco group, plans to increase its current 13 hotels to more than 35 by 2015, powered by a US$187 million-investment. Since establishing its Premium brand in 2009, Kenzi has opened the Kenzi Tower Hotel in Casablanca, and Kenzi Menara Palace, Marrakech.
“An amalgam has been made between Morocco and other Arab countries, even though we have had no major or lasting problems,” said Caroline Bauchet-Bouhlal, from the Es Saadi Gardens & Resort confirming the critical effects on clientele. “We have experienced a sudden drop in occupancies from 60 to 30% for March and April which is usually our peak season.”
Likewise at La Mamounia, the city’s iconic palace hotel, March occupancies were slashed from the usual 100% to 55%, communications director Jalila El Ofir said. “We have had some cancellations because people got scared … So far, it has been a very average high season; it’s not a catastrophe but there’s been a big slowing up compared to the excellent provisions for the season.”
“Some people’s misfortune is others fortune,” said Amal Benzari, GM of the Pickalbatros Royal Mirage Hotel in Fez “Along with Greece and Turkey, we gained particularly on group tours from Egypt and Tunisia, with a 25% jump in occupancies for March from 32% last year to 57% this year.”
The varying fallout on the Pickalbatros hotels in Fez, Agadir and Marrakech (the former Royal Mirage hotels are being rebranded and refurbished by the Egyptian hotel management group), indicates the intensely regional nature of Morocco’s tourism and hotel industry. According to Benzari, Marrakech is an up market, “jet-setters” destination, Agadir a seaside resort, while Fès like Marrakech is on the imperial cities circuit, but with a far more midrange, group-booking hotel market.