Morocco’s heady combination of luxury, history and sensual delight has famously seized the imagination of writers, attracting hedonists, amateur archaeologists, musicians, and would-be desert travellers for time immemorial. (Think Rimbaud, Paul Bowles and Jimi Hendrix for starters.) For Europeans particularly, Morocco offers the thrill of the exotic on their doorstep – or at least a short hop across the Strait of Gibraltar.

And there is not a great deal that the country does not offer: beaches on the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, the timelessness of the souks of Fez and Marrakech, and the berber villages of the Atlas Mountains. It is a country perfectly well-endowed to appeal to anyone in search of an escape from the humdrum or mundane.

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Thus it is little surprise that the Moroccan economy has come to rely on tourism for a significant proportion of its GDP. Indeed, the Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation's figures make the point that tourism is Morocco’s largest foreign exchange earner, the second biggest contributor to GDP, and the second largest single job-creating force, responsible for about 400,000 in terms of direct employment, and considerably more in terms of secondary employment. 

Year on year, the industry has continued to grow – albeit with hiccups. In 2010, there were 7.9 million tourists visiting the country – a 12% increase on 2009’s figures, when the the global financial crisis impacted the tourism industry. And in 2011, the 'Arab Spring' uprising also hit numbers, as potential visitors were deterred by their perceptions of regional volatility (a trend that the bombing of a popular café in Marrakech in April, a favoured haunt of travellers and locals alike, did nothing to diminish).

2020 vision

The sector is certainly strong enough to withstand any glitches in the long term – and the Moroccan government is committed to a long-term plan. Indeed, it is very much a part of King Mohammed IV’s overall objective of transforming Morocco’s infrastructure, reducing unemployment and increasing access to education; and it is the king that is the driving force behind Vision 2020.

If the plan’s objectives are met, then by 2020 it will have doubled the number of annual foreign tourists, tripled the number of domestic tourists, and created hotel facilities to the tune of about 200,000 beds. Importantly, the vision also recognises the value of doing so in such a way that not only respects the country’s environment and unique cultural and architectural heritage, but puts them centre stage.

Giles Giffin, director of UK-based speciality tourism company Naturally Morocco, says that while the country's visitor profile is certainly changing as it courts more tourists, the government is being careful about how it manages and sculpts its tourist offering. "In the past 10 years there has been more mass tourism – ie, tourists staying in large hotels outside of the medina, or on the coast. But I think that the government is going to be careful to ensure that that side of the market remains centred in just a few areas, and they certainly won’t let it dominate."

The cultural tourist

By contrast, he suggests there has also been an increase in cultural tourists, such as the footloose hippy who has come of age and is now looking for an authentic experience, albeit in a boutique riad, a traditional house built around a tiled courtyard. "Morocco has kept the value of the dirham quite high – this certainly isn’t a super cheap destination, but I don’t think that [the government] is bothered by that," says Mr Giffin.

"In contrast to some other countries, Morocco has a very keen sense of the value of its cultural heritage; it recognises that places such as the medina in Fez are very much more than museum pieces, they are also living, working assets," he adds.

It is part of the government’s strategy of not sacrificing the quality of visitor experience for quantity. Vision 2020 espouses a number of key development principles for developing the sector. Among them are enhancing the range of Morocco’s cultural products, the aggressive marketing of seaside resorts, the creation of a range of ‘nature tourism’ products, and establishing a number of themed corridors. 

Boundary changes

In tandem with these principles will be the designation of new tourist territories that cut across existing administrative boundaries but showcase coherent visitor experiences and themes, including the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, the cultural attractions of the country’s centre, and the mountains and oases of the south. (More controversially, much of the contested territory of Western Sahara has been designated the 'Great Southern Atlantic coast'.)

If it is successful in realising the plans, the government will have gone a long way towards broadening its offering. Currently, hotel occupancy is heavily concentrated in Marrakech and the coastal resort of Agadir, which places limitations on the value of tourism in terms of generating employment and secondary industries. 

There are, of course, challenges to the overall project. One on-the-ground observer points out that hotel development, for example, threatens to be hindered in places by a lack of access to consistent water supplies, an infrastructural issue that will require pump-priming if it is to be adequately addressed. Another issue he highlights is the need to ensure the quality and reliability of air traffic into the country. "The combination presented by Royal Air Maroc [the flagship carrier], the low-cost carriers, and a few others, is not going to be sufficient in the long run." 

The right balance

In terms of investment into the sector, the big money has largely come from the Middle East. By one estimate, Gulf investment has been to the tune of $14bn. The United Arab Emirates government, for example, is known to be a major backer of the Moroccan Fund for Tourist Development. A Saudi company, Al Mamlaka Holding, is behind the planned $167m (Dh1.4bn) development of a Four Seasons Hotel in Marrakech, and increasingly it is thought that Chinese investors will increase their role in the sector.

Good news for tourists no doubt, but better for Morocco. In a country with such a high rate of youth unemployment, service industry jobs are eagerly welcomed. The challenge for the country is to change with the times, while maintaining its timeless allure.