Postcard from . . . Morocco
When I first came to Imlil, up in the Moroccan Atlas, 15 years ago, the talk was all about the impact of satellite TV. Deeply traditional Berbers, who lived in isolated mountain villages and who had previously viewed the outside world through the prism of the Koran, were sitting slack-jawed in front of MTV and late-night German sauciness. Never mind that they couldn’t understand a word of what was being said.
On my return I find that a new technology has penetrated the valley, and this time the community’s religious leaders are happier: the internet has arrived and brought with it a whole new tourist economy.
Imlil sits under the shadow of the highest peak in the Atlas, Mount Toubkal. It’s where the tarmac of modern Morocco hands over to the mule trains of a mountain existence, and although it is barely more than an hour’s drive south of Marrakech, it is in such a different, steep-sided world that it might as well be another timezone. It is too vertiginous for cars, so the Berbers in the surrounding hills lead a back-breaking existence based on goats, fruit trees, walnut groves and corn-crop terraces.
The first foreigners came here to tackle the 4,167-metre Mount Toubkal. Walking along these precipitous paths is like going trekking in Nepal, but without having to fly halfway round the world. In fact the mountainscape is so reminiscent of the Himalayas that it provided the backdrop for Seven Years in Tibet and featured in Martin Scorsese’s Kundun.
Imlil’s main street is still busy with shops that rent mountaineering gear and guides, but these days there are more carpet sellers and restaurants, and only a small percentage of visitors have their heart set on making it up the mountain. Two big-name properties have changed the face of tourism here, and the backpackers and mountaineers have now been joined by a far bigger crowd of visitors who come simply for the spectacular setting and to interact with mountain communities.
The pioneer of this change is the Kasbah du Toubkal, perched like an eagle’s nest on a rocky outcrop above Imlil, and reached by a short, steep climb either on foot or on the back of a mule. The setting and the equally impressive building, and the British/Berber co-operation behind it, ensured the Kasbah marched on to the covers of travel magazines and won a clutch of responsible tourism awards after it opened in 1995. It was followed a decade ago by Richard Branson’s Kasbah Tamadot, further down the valley, which brought extreme luxury to the neighbourhood for the first time.
I was full of admiration for the Kasbah du Toubkal when I first stayed but this time I am disappointed. Although the setting is still magnificent, the place is looking scruffy, the staff uninterested, and a lot of the revenue comes from curious day-visitors, like me, who have to pay an entry fee to have a coffee on the terrace. Rooms start at €180, which seems too much.
But while the Kasbah itself may have lost its edge, it has had a warming effect on its surroundings. Where once it stood practically alone, today there are around 60 tiny “hotels” in the Imlil valley, the vast majority run by Berbers who took Kasbah du Toubkal’s lead, saw there was a market, and have undercut it by a significant percentage. This time I stay in the well-equipped four-bedroom Kasbah Imlil, which, like Kasbah du Toubkal, has a great view, but whose room rates are barely more than 15 per cent of the latter’s prices.
But back to the technology. The reason why this clutch of new hotels has prospered is thanks to online booking agencies such as Booking.com and Trivago. Before their existence, you either came to Imlil through the laborious and expensive portal of a specialist travel agent, run by outsiders, or else you took a plunge into the unknown on the chance that there might be some kind of local accommodation. Now, thanks to the online booking sites, punters like me can get an insight into the range and the detail of Imlil’s accommodation before travelling, and have the security of making a reliable reservation.
The one element of modern travel that hasn’t reached Imlil is alcohol (except within the walls of the isolated Tamadot). That certainly keeps the mosques happy, and it also has the effect of protecting the one-man-and-his-mule hoteliers. For big international tourism companies, who might otherwise be tempted by Imlil’s success, that prohibition is quite a stumbling block as the vast majority of holiday-makers remain reluctant to go anywhere where they can’t get a drink.
Illustration by Matthew Cook