We leave Morocco with a sense of relief. We've ticked it off the list, but unsure if we would go back. In our minds, the country has a big problem in its reliance on tourism.
But first, a note of what we experienced.
On our first day we wake up at 05.50 (about four hours earlier than normal on a Saturday) and get driven to the site of a balloon ride. At the site we climb into the basket which holds up to 16 people and ascend to look at the Moroccan landscape from above. In the distance, we see the snow capped Atlas mountains.
Arriving back in the city already at 9am, we're eager to make use of the head start and explore the medina, the souks, the famed Moroccan markets. Having ventured no further than a hundred meters in, we're approached by a friendly chap who asks if we're looking for the Berber tanneries. We reply that in fact we are, and reason that he must have seen us looking around for it. He points to another chap and who takes us under his wings, saying his house is actually right next to it.
The walk that follows is impossible. In and out of alleyways, dodging more mopeds than people, animals and tourists, we eventually duck into a complex where we're introduced to the owner. It seems he knew that we were coming, hands us a handful of fresh mint and jokes about it making a great 'gas mask', protection from the smell. Taking us around the place we see camel, sheep and goat skins in various states of preparation. These are the 'real' tanneries, run by the ancient Berber people who have a long tradition in treating leather. As we make it round the facilities, our guide insists on showing us just 'one more thing'. Turns out, and we're getting less surprised by the minute, that it's the family shop. 45 minutes later we leave, having spent a considerable amount of money - even after aggressive haggling.
This first experience is symptomatic of the wider problem Morocco faces. As we leave the tannery, the same man who led us there is outside, and he reappears a couple of time to show us other things. We later learn that very few Moroccans earn enough to make ends meet, and hence they all become entrepreneurs seeking to supplement their income in whatever guise it comes. They're skilled conmen, by necessity, and we learn that we can in fact trust no one. Moroccans are friendly, very friendly compared with other countries we've been to, but we're invariably slapped with a big bill at the end of the encounter. Prices are fluid to say the least, tourists have more economic than human value, and there is no loyalty - even employees at the finer institutions will ask you for a generous tip in a hushed voice, for himself you see, as he gets no commission from the job.
This continues to happen as we progress to see Majorelle Gardens, have a four hour spa treatment, get driven around for a day in the Atlas mountains to 'see how the real Berber families live' (we have to tip them for photos), and visit the Palais Bahia. It all evokes a sense of unease in us, like growing up to find Santa isn't real. We drive through tiny villages in the mountains, and in the hairpin curves we see children, just hanging out and waiting for cars to come by, and when we don't stop they run after the car shouting for money with an angry sense of entitlement. Our guide says he will not allow tourists to give them money, lest they get used to getting money this way. I wonder if he realises the irony of the statement, touching on what I believe is a much wider problem.
An enlightening conversation with our guide reveals that Morocco is a land of bountiful promise. In the next decade the economy is set to soar, harnessing plentiful supply of metals (biggest silver mine in Africa), beauty and health products from the indigenous Argan tree, fruits and vegetables (a new contract with Russia has been signed), and a well educated population. We venture into a discussion about why Morocco sees little or none of the Islamist extremism that is tearing through the rest of the North African countries. Our guide means to say that it's because of the incredibly strong police and military presence, along with the solidarity of the Moroccan people - who all, essentially, want peace and a return from the corrupt ways of the past. Whether or not this is true, we feel safe during our journey through the country.
Today however, the economy relies on tourism for up to 25 percent. At rates this high, I wonder how the government could replace the easy income garnered from unwitting tourists and get more people employed in the industries that build the country and develop its strengths. We'd like to see a more genuine relationship between Moroccans and those who come to visit. We've both visited countries who are far worse off, but where we didn't encounter this problem, and where we had meaningful encounters with locals that saw us as people instead of wallets. It would be interesting to come back to Morocco in ten years, and see what's changed.
Overall, Morocco is a colourful and interesting country, rich with sights, sounds, smells and textures. Visit for the mountains, a safe place to venture into the desert, for the markets, for the food, and for the hamman spa treatments. Just be careful taking friendly advice, is our friendly advice.