“My family is safe,” our tour guide Sara Chakir said as we huddled in the streets outside Fez’s medina, waiting for aftershocks until the early hours. Morocco’s 6.8 magnitude earthquake had struck last Friday, 350 miles away in the Al Haouz region of the High Atlas mountains at just after 11pm. It was enough to send our riad swaying, but there was no apparent damage to people or place. It was only in the morning that the scale of destruction elsewhere was clear. Another tour guide, Hossain ait Mhand, said: “My family is fine, but others in their town are not so lucky – homes have been flattened.”
I was on my way to a conference in Marrakech, about 40 miles north of where the earthquake was centred, but detoured home. Those already in the city saw blood bank queues snaking around the streets after a government call out. Marrakech’s medina experienced damage, and 50 people were reported to have died there. Tourists trickled out of the city.
Three days later, the death toll was almost 3,000, and with more than 5,000 people injured. Some of Morocco’s most remote communities were the hardest hit, making recovery efforts difficult. Some villages are still waiting for relief; in others, rescuers have little hope – ancient clay buildings have crumbled entirely. The village of Tafeghaghte, for example, has lost 90 of its 400 residents.
Though the Al Haouz region is a popular hiking destination edging into peak season, tourists have been relatively unharmed.
Chris McHugo, co-owner of the community-run hotel Kasbah du Toubkal, said: “Here in Imlil, the damage is less than in other places. It’s partly because tourism has funded building work here, meaning the village is more structurally sound than others. The old part of our kasbah is damaged, but the rooms were unharmed.”
Others have not been as fortunate. In the quiet village of Agnie, a beautiful, locally owned lodge I visited last year, Chez Momo II, has been badly damaged.
Just down the road in Asni, Education For All, a charity providing boarding and support so that girls from the region’s most remote communities can go to school, has been devastated by the earthquake. Its chief executive, Sonia Omar, has said it will have to rebuild at least five of the six boarding houses.
“Our immediate need is confirming our girls’ safety and cooperating with aid agencies to get food, water, blankets, torches and medical supplies where they are most needed,” she said. There are still 55 girls unaccounted for. The charity has started emergency fundraising focused on long-term repair.
Morocco had a record-breaking 2.9 million international visitors in the first quarter of 2023, and the travel industry has been quick to rally support. The Intrepid Foundation, run by the adventure travel company Intrepid Travel – which takes groups to destinations around the country – is fundraising for its two NGO partners on the ground: Education For All for long-term relief and the High Atlas Foundation for immediate relief. The latter usually runs sustainable infrastructure projects, so it is well placed to redeploy services. So far, Intrepid has raised AUS$340,582 (£176,620) after fund matching the first AUS$100,000.
Much Better Adventures is donating 5% of its September revenue to the High Atlas Foundation. Exodus Adventure Travels has launched fundraising for React disaster response, and Global Giving‘s Morocco Earthquake Relief Fund is supporting immediate needs.
For those travelling to Morocco imminently, the Foreign Office advice is to check with travel companies and tour operators before departing, though the industry’s overall message is one of still encouraging people to travel.
Intrepid has adapted itineraries that involve the Atlas mountains region, and other tour operators are doing the same. The message from tour guides, NGOs, and travel businesses is increasingly clear: continuing to travel responsibly is an important part of support.
“Our message is strong,” said Gail Leonard from the local operator Plan-it Morocco. “Your tourism dollar is critical to the ongoing relief effort here in Morocco.”
Jarrod Kyte, the product and sustainability director at Steppes Travel, who was in the mountains during the earthquake, agrees. Steppes’ partner at Hotel Dar Ahlam in Skoura told me: “Beyond the aid that is being provided, tourist arrivals constitute a message of hope and support that is just as necessary and vital for Morocco.”