After the earthquake in Morocco, tourists grapple with the ethics of travel

Those already in a country in the wake of a disaster debate whether they should stay or leave. Those with upcoming trips wonder if they should cancel.
Last Updated : 13 September 2023, 03:17 IST

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Some of the world’s most popular tourist destinations — Turkey, Greece, Hawaii and, now, Morocco — have been ravaged by disaster this year, with earthquakes, wildfires and floods razing entire towns and villages, killing residents, and destroying or damaging cultural monuments.

The series of catastrophic events has left many tourists in a conundrum over how to respond. Those already in a country in the wake of a disaster debate whether they should stay or leave. Those with upcoming trips wonder if they should cancel. Can they and the revenue they bring in be of any real help, or will they be a burden? How appropriate is it to let tourism go on while a nation is in a state of collective mourning and rescue efforts are underway?

There are no easy answers, travel experts say. Each disaster’s impact is unique, and while travelers are advised to follow the guidance of government officials in the aftermath of such events, local communities don’t always agree on the best course of action. After the Maui wildfires destroyed much of the town of Lahaina in August, killing at least 115 people, residents on the island, which depends on tourist dollars, clashed over the decision to allow tourism to continue while locals grieved for all that was lost.

In Morocco, however, where a powerful 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck the Atlas Mountains southwest of Marrakech on Friday, killing thousands, the outlook is more unified. With the high tourism season underway and most of the destruction affecting rural areas far from tourist hot spots, many locals are eager for foreign visitors to keep coming so that they can support the economy and bring in funds for relief efforts.

“After Covid, the abandonment of tourists would be terrible for Marrakech, where so many resources come from tourism,” said Mouna Anajjar, the editor-in-chief of I Came for Couscous, a local feature magazine. “Directly or indirectly, all the inhabitants are linked to this resource and would be terribly affected.”

Here’s what travelers faced with the prospect of visiting a country where devastation has struck should think about.

Is the place open for tourism?

Check official government guidance and local media reports to assess the situation on the ground. When the deadly wildfires swept through parts of Maui last month, the local authorities urged tourists to stay home. So far, the Moroccan government hasn’t issued any statements beyond the status of rescue efforts, and the country’s tourism office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The British Foreign Office advised its citizens planning to travel to the country to check with their tour providers about any disruptions.

While the US State Department has not updated its travel advisory to Morocco, it is a good idea to check the website before traveling to any country that has been struck by disaster.

Establish exactly where the disaster hit and which areas have been affected. When Greece was ravaged by wildfires in July and thousands of tourists were evacuated from the islands of Rhodes and Corfu, many tourists canceled their vacations, even those traveling to unaffected areas. The Greek tourism minister issued a response, highlighting that the majority of the country, including parts of the affected islands, remained safe for tourists.

When the earthquake struck Morocco on Friday, it was felt in many popular tourist destinations, including Marrakech and the towns of Imsouane and Essaouira, but most of the damage is concentrated close to the epicenter in Al Haouz province. In the immediate aftermath of the quake, most Morocco tours were canceled as operators scrambled to make critical safety assessments, making sure that all their clients and staff members were accounted for and that tourists were not hindering rescue efforts.

But now, having established that the damage is localized in rural areas and following government guidance, most tours are up and running with some amended itineraries. Hotels have largely been unaffected, according to Morocco’s hotel association.

“There are areas inside the Marrakech medina that have been damaged, some historical monuments are closed, but most areas inside the cities are totally OK to be visited,” said Zina Bencheikh, the managing director of Intrepid Travel’s Europe, Middle East and Africa operations, who was born in Marrakech. “The majority of the country is open, with airports, schools, hotels, shops and restaurants operating as normal under the shock of the incident.”

Intrepid Travel had 600 customers in Morocco on the night of the earthquake, and only 17 have cut their trips short. TUI, Europe’s largest travel operator, said that some of its itineraries were under review, but that the majority of its guests had decided to stay on after the company carried out safety inspections and chose to support keeping Morocco open.

As a tourist, will I be a burden on local communities?

When a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck southern Turkey in February, Turkish Airlines, the country’s national carrier, canceled dozens of flights across the country to open up resources for rescue efforts. During the Maui wildfires, airlines also canceled flights to Hawaii so that they could use the planes to fly passengers back to the mainland. Most of West Maui is still closed to tourists but is expected to reopen on Oct 8.

In Morocco, the hardest-hit areas in the Atlas Mountains are cordoned off as rescue efforts are underway, and tourists are not advised to go into those areas. But tourism activities are encouraged in other areas of the country that haven’t been affected.

Hafida Hdoubane, a guide based in Marrakech who takes visitors on hiking and trekking excursions, urged visitors to come, arguing that the danger from the earthquake had long passed and that the authorities in Marrakech were carefully cordoning off any buildings showing signs of damage.

She said those who called to cancel their expeditions felt uneasy about vacationing in a country that had just experienced such devastation, but that locals did not share that view. “I think it’s best to come and show that life goes on,” she said. “What a mountain tourist can do to help is come, show that they are here and that they stand in solidarity.”

Should I change my behavior?

Most locals will not expect you to, but it is important to be receptive and mindful of the mood around you.

In Maui, the sight of tourists sunbathing on the beach as rescue teams searched for survivors outraged grieving residents, setting off a social media campaign calling for them to leave.

“The people of Morocco will say don’t switch Morocco off,” said Bencheikh of Intrepid Travel.

Ángel Esquinas, the regional director of the Barceló Hotel Group, which has properties in Marrakech, Casablanca and Fez, said there was no immediate need for tourists to cut their trips short unless they felt it necessary.

“It is absolutely acceptable for tourists to continue with their planned activities, such as going on tours, lounging by the pool or enjoying nightlife. Morocco remains a vibrant and welcoming destination,” he said. “However, we encourage visitors to be mindful of their surroundings and exercise respect for the local communities’ particular circumstances. It’s important to strike a balance between supporting the local economy and not overwhelm the community.”

Cassandra Karinsky, a co-founder of Plus-61, a popular restaurant in Marrakech, said she reopened a day after the earthquake to provide an environment for locals to unite at a difficult time. “We’ve had a lot of cancellations, but we’re coming together now to raise money and support our local communities and it’s starting to get busy again.”

She said the mood was more somber than usual and people were still in shock, but that tourists were mindful and respectful of locals.

“People still need to eat, and every day there’s a more optimistic atmosphere to come together to help and move forward,” she said.

What can I do to help?

Visiting a country can be a big support to disaster relief efforts, as many locals depend on tourism revenue for their livelihoods. In Morocco, tourism accounts for 7.1 per cent of the gross domestic product and is a crucial source of income for low- to middle-income families. Many restaurants and hotels have started funding campaigns to help their employees and their families in the most affected areas.

You can donate to some of the aid organisations like the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies that are responding to the disaster. And Intrepid Foundation, the travel company’s charity, has begun an earthquake appeal campaign for Morocco to support efforts to provide food, shelter, clean water and medical assistance to local communities.

In Hawaii, the Hawaii Community Foundation continues to run a fund supporting the long-term needs of those affected by the wildfires.

If you are a tourist already in a country that has been hit by a disaster, consider donating blood at blood banks, which are often set up in the aftermath of natural disasters.

“We just came out of a big lunch and saw a blood donation center, and it felt like the right thing to do,” said Tony Osborne, a 52-year-old tennis coach from London who was visiting Marrakech with his family during the earthquake. “The Moroccans have been so welcoming. I just wish we could do even more to help.”

Published 13 September 2023, 03:17 IST

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