Tour Operator Watch 8 Dec 2009

Posté par Michael Peyron le 4 avril 2010

Tour Operator Watch: Atlas Mountains  Morocco n°8 

(December 2009)


Well, here we are returning to the web after an absence of several months. Why’s that? Oh, quite simple., my previous access provider, whose piss-poor package did not include meaningful after-sales back-up, helpfully hi-jacked my website at the end of May 2009 after I had quite legally switched to I had to spend the interval picking up bits and pieces from here and there so as to recreate, as faithfully as possible, my “Michael Peyron’s working papers” and “Tour Operator Watch” series, dealing with the Berbers and Atlas mountain tourism. Now, after perusing over fifty sites of Morocco-oriented agencies on the Web, I wish to bring the would-be Atlas traveller up to date in terms of what’s on offer, exposing some of the pitfalls that creep into the slick sales talk of those commercial outfits, so he’ll know what he should go for, what he should avoid. 



    TO bivvy by « Tizlit Bride » auberge, near Imilchil , Aug. 2005, (photo: M. Peyron)

The over-riding impression is that in spite of the continuing economic downturn, Atlas mountain TOs are quite obviously remaining as up-beat and wishful in their thinking as ever as they gear up for “Vision 2010” and its astronomically impossible target figures for tourism in Morocco. This overall mood emerges from brochure talk analysis, where info contained in route descriptions is often carelessly and inaccurately imparted. A few examples: Lake Ifni is described as “the only lake in the High Atlas”, which is a blatant fallacy, while the otherwise reputable Footprint guide-book to Morocco erroneously refers to Isli and Tislit (also Isly, Izly and Tizlit) on the plateau near Imichil as “glacier lakes”. In this connection a well-known operator from Savoy manages to name one of those lakes « Tiznit” (name of a south-west Moroccan town) in his brochure (actually called “Tislit”)“– talk of dropping a brick!  Again near Imilchil, trekkers are led to believe by another TO that they will meet “semi nomadic sheppards” (sic), while those approaching Toubkal are inanely invited to visit the “high circuses and plateau of the massif”. Some circus… 


Tizi Mqorn seen from Upper Dadès road, Dec 1968 (photo: M. Peyron)                   

Another amusing spelling mistake appears in the brochure of French operator H & M – “plateau du Yagourt” (making it sound deliciously like yoghourt!), before getting it right – Yagour – a couple of lines further down. This kind of slip-up, of course, should probably be attributed to an unknown office wage-slave, in Voiron or wherever in the Dauphiny or Savoy, who has probably never set foot on the Yagour, rather than to the guides who actually lead the tour. Yet it makes one wonder whether they’re as wobbly on the ground as they are on paper! 

The funniest case, however, is the new spelling for Mgoun – M’gnou, strangely evocative of some African antelope, employed by “cyberberbère” and at least three Moroccan agencies and blogs. In terms of ineptitude it slots into the same category as a reference elsewhere to a shop in Midelt that would seem, by dint of some geographical quirk, to sell “Berber kilims”, of all things, whereas everyone knows that the kilim is not produced outside of central Asia! Also a wee bit off-target is a strange reference to “the Jbel Maaskar range where rises Ayachi”. This should be the other way round, with its 3747m Ayachi (compared to Maaskar’s paltry 3207m) is the real name that should be given to the range.


  Tounfit and Jbel Ma’asker, April 1972 (photo: M. Peyron)


  Cliffs of Jbel Ayoui (Aroudan), Aug. 1968 (photo: M. Peyron)

Another agency, calling itself “amazighatlasrando”, publicize a trip to Mgoun with a photo of Jbel Ayoui (Aroudan), which is wilfully misleading, the latter summit being a technically far more difficult proposition, rather like advertising a trip up the Ben Nevis ordinary route with a picture of precipitous Liathach in the Torridon peaks! In another attempt to lure customers they print a photo showing trekkers setting up tents on, of all places, a threshing floor with its large flag-stones in the middle of Imilchil village. Just about the very last spot you’d choose to camp, I would think, in terms of peace, quiet and comfort… Anyway, a highly counter-productive photo no doubt calculated to deter comfort-loving trekkers  (and they are in the majority today) from resorting to the services of that TO! Pretty amazing stuff, all of this, although very much in keeping with the present “anything goes” atmosphere, and all the crap it nurtures, that appears to characterize the activities of our so-called mountain tourism “professionals”. 

The terminology, too, is undergoing one of its subtle sea changes: trekking is now seen as belonging not so much to “eco-tourism” (ego-tourism?) or “sustainable tourism”, as fitting into a new niche – “back-country tourism”. Which, by the way, comes across as “tourisme d’arrière-pays” in French. Also in Frogspeak, we have the new notion of setting up a specific area as a PAT (Pays d’Accueil Touristique), apparently part of the Moroccan government’s plan for improving the quality of eco-tourism in out-of-the-way mountain pockets of the country. 

On the whole, however, TOs remain as unimaginative as ever, copying each others’ programmes, breaking little fresh ground and pandering to the usual, more obvious “adventure” tourism tastes. Whether it’s Frog or Brit, Terdav, Kendal, H & M, Exodus, Allib, Club Aventure or Sherpa, Toubkal remains the n°1 most visited peak in the Atlas, and websites continue to feature those tedious summit shots with a gaggle of laid-back, privileged trekkers gawping at the camera, safe in the knowledge that they have topped out on the roof of Morocco without contracting Mild Altitude Sickness (MAS)! All very facile and obvious. 


Exiting from WSW Toubkal ridge, climbers head for summit, autumn 1968, (photo: M. Peyron) 

Yet Mgoun has been running a close second over recent months. People praise its remote setting, seen as much wilder and more remote than the oft-trodden surroundings of Toubkal, together with an arguably greater sense of commitment. The actual climb to Mgoun summit is a tedious plod up a glacial cwm to reach the summit ridge. Then follows a protracted scree-bash to the main summit along a well-worn trail. This should surprise nobody, when you reckon that on average 1000 visitors or so make it to the summit every year between June and September. 


 Not quite so crowded in those days: above Mgoun base camp, Sep. 1966 (photo: M. Peyron)

Understandably, it can be quite crowded at the top, at times, which has you wondering why some of those visitors, decked out as imitation “Blue Men”, ever forsake their native Alps. After all, in terms of herd, scene and scree, Mgoun-4073 on a busy day is pretty much like the peak of Taillefer – a Grenoble Sunday mountaineers’ favourite. A small refuge, or mountain hut, has been functioning at the foot of Mgoun for the past few years, guaranteeing board and lodging for individual trekkers, even serving beer. TO groups, however, camp out on the Tassaout source plateau, sharing the spot with transhumant shepherds who, rumour has it, have started charging each successive party a specific sum for this (un?)welcome use of their grazing land. And quite rightly so, when you think of the miscellaneous waste that accumulates with time. In this connection, some environmentally conscious Brit TOs have been organising clean-ups at Mgoun base-camp, just like at Toubkal! 

And those recurring sob stories about how environmental-friendly every TO has become. They have to be read to be believed. How respectful of the local environment they can be (I wish I had been aware of that before I went up Toubkal last year)! Pious declarations about how the agency deducts 5% from each traveller’s bill to plough that sum back into the local economy. How they provide for the education of the local Berbers, evidence of which actually exists for only one actor in the Toubkal area. How they remove and/or burn the trash generated by their bivouacs. They just go on and on pulling the wool over our eyes. 

Mgoun and Toubkal are sometimes linked by a traverse of some 22 days which figures in practically every catalogue, a trek then variously and undeservedly referred to as the Grand Traverse, or the GTAM, even amusingly translated as the “Great Crossing”, or “Great Adventure Moroccan Atlas” by some TOs!  Which will lead yet another Tour Operator to remark, somewhat modestly: “We, however, offer the real Grand Traverse!” 



                 Tassawt Voices, English translation of an Atlas classic (2008)

Or they plan treks according to some cultural theme, such as “Les chants berbères de la Tassaout” programmed by a Parisian agency that should know better, drawing on the title of a well-known collection of Berber poems recited long ago by Mirida n-Ayt Atiq, then translated and published in French by a certain René Euloge (and by this writer into English, as Tassawt Voices, in 2008!). Except that the description of the itinerary does not make the slightest mention of the book and its author; nor does the trek take in Megdaz, reputedly poetess Mririda’s home village! This is typical of the inconsequential thinking that goes into the organisation of these outings. 

The eastern ranges have, it must be admitted, been belatedly coming in for some attention: Imilchil, Midelt and the Middle Atlas. Here again, though, some agencies think they’re God’s own gift to the trekking world, one claiming that they are “probably the only one to offer the Eastern High Atlas” in its programme, whereas at least three other competitors field similar outings! 



Middle Atlas back-packing: on Bou Iblan circuit, May 2002 (photo: M. Peyron)

Then we have a touch of hype around the term “virgin”, in connection with the Middle Atlas, described as “a genuine, little-known, and virgin part of the Atlas mountains”, and rightly mentioned after years of neglect. This, however, is reinforced by a spot of balderdash when one tourist enthuses over a visit to the Gouraud cedar, which, as everyone knows, has been a dry, shrivelled up stump these past seven years! 

But the prize for incongruity must surely go to a Middle Atlas birding trek organised by one outfit: “For bird lovers this trek is perfect for seeing the various species. They are quite the ninjas, hiding out but bellowing their rapping tunes!” Who are the ninjas? Who is fond of rap? The reader is left guessing, which is never a good thing! The vocabulary, the noise associated with rap…, how much further away can we be from a normal, peaceful birding environment. Ah, but Peyron, you old stick-in-the-mud, you’ve got it all wrong. The lurid language used is probably designed to lure the new-look breed of bird-lover!

Michael PEYRON 

Grenoble 2009

N.B. Unless otherwise stated texts are copyright by Michael Peyron. Material from same may be quoted in compliance with current academic practice.



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