Tour Operator Watch 6 autumn 2008

Posté par Michael Peyron le 4 avril 2010


 (Autumn 2008) 


Rjout (L) and Anghemar from Dayet n-Iferd, Yagour plateau (photo: M. Peyron)


This report was compiled after trawling the web at the beginning of October, which is pretty much the close of the Moroccan trekking season. Coming a year after Part 4 of our TO watch series devoted to the GTAM, it merely confirms trends already observed in 2007. An operator rejoicing in the unlikely name of Only Punjab (!!) breezily sums things up by declaring that thanks to the numerous qualified agencies plying the Atlas trade-routes, “there’s never been a better time to visit the ‘land of the Berbers’”. If only we could believe them! 

Current trends 

Diversification remains very much the watchword among TOs working the Moroccan Atlas. From 4/5-day walks to mammoth multi-day treks, variety is on tap and clearly geared to the whims of a fickle, rapidly-changing market. What’s more, as a result of the on-going worldwide economic crisis, TOs and their customers are beginning to feel the pinch, though Morocco’s chief asset remains so far unimpaired and likely to stay that way into the foreseeable future. Like it or not, Morocco is the closest and cheapest exotic destination to Europe. Now that Grenoble-based Trek Magazine have fielded a special issue featuring the High Atlas Traverse (HAT) from Bouguemmaz to Toubkal, penned by lightweight Morocco newcomer Laurence Fleury, we have even more TO websites catering for this kind of world class walk. Let’s take a look at what they have to say about this. 


Late afternoon shadows, Ayt Bougemmaz (photo: M. Peyron)

As usual, Terdav continues to dominate the Moroccan trekking scene. Despite complaints of their being expensive, their professionalism is never in doubt. They continue to go for the big groups (8-15 people); so much so, in fact, that if there’s only 5-7 starters on the big day you have to fork out a € 100 supplement per capita! Makes sound business sense, doesn’t it? Their HAT now follows the classic Bougemmaz-Imlil route, with ascents of Mgoun, Anghomar and Toubkal on the way. Allib, the other front-runners in the HAT stakes, is toying with a planned 43-day hike from Ayyachi to the ocean. Kendal, after enthusing about this “stunning trekking itinerary”, make no bones about its being of a “relatively sustained nature”, while admitting that heat “does have an effect on trekking performance”. So why do most TOs continue advertising June-August as the ideal period for trekking in Morocco? We all know perfectly well that it’s the driest, hottest and scenically least-inspiring  time of the year. Classic Journeys, while allowing that Toubkal can be “a tiring climb on scree but the views are well worth the effort”, also warn trekkers not to underestimate conditions, polar wear (fleece) being recommended above 3700m on Mgoun because of prevailing high winds up there. This makes sense when one recalls that three women froze to death on that mountain in a freak mid-September 2005 blizzard. 


Not to be under-estimated: Ighil Mgoun seen  from Jbel Rat (photo: M. Peyron)

Copycat TOs 

The copycat nature of TO planning is obvious from the similarity of routes programmed, within the HAT framework. Year in year out agencies predictably follow much-travelled foot-paths, as if the Atlas had little to offer in the way of flexibility and variety. While La Pèlerine boast of offering “La vraie traversée de l’Atlas” from Tounfit to Anmiter via the Taghia gorge and Mgoun summit, Visage rather tamely propose an absolutely identical valley crawl through the Central High Atlas. There is, however, some confusion over their first stage, purportedly starting from somewhere near Tounfit, with a short walk to an unspecified camping site, whence Imilchil is reached the next day. The only explanation is that the tarmac road from Tounfit to Sidi Yahya ou Youssef (a recent development) must be put to good use, as it normally takes three days on foot to cover the Tounfit-Imilchil leg of the traverse. 


           The famous, over-photographed Anmiter kasbahs (photo: M. Peyron)

This copycat business may also result from big-name TOs sub-contracting out their treks to a local agency, which will understandably feature the same itinerary on its webpage. This is all about TO solidarity, which chiefly functions when certain trips have been under-subscribed, clients from outfits like Zigzag and Atalante being bunched together with their Terdav colleagues as a matter of convenience and break-even. 

Analysing travellers’ forums 

Trekkers’ blogs and travellers’ affidavits are useful indicators as to market trends. One forum concerns unguided travel, would-be Atlas hopefuls openly inquiring whether it is wise to dispense with the services of a TO and strike out their own. Response is surprisingly healthy with a consensus pretty much in favour of doing just that, but with one caveat: resort to the services of a guide on the spot, especially if one is unfamiliar with language and/or country. We even hear reassuring noises from the Lonely Planet website: “without using an agency you shouldn’t have much difficulty in finding a guide”. 

Needless to say, we heartily approve of this: shunt your Europe- or Stateside-based TO, by all means! There is enough info on the web to give you a pretty good idea of Atlas mountain potential anyway, but do get some local Berber to accompany you. Whether guide, porter or even “faux guide”, as non CFAMM graduates are termed, he will prove invaluable in intercourse with the local population. And let’s knock this nonsense about “faux guides” fairly and squarely on the head. Nowadays, far, from being an irresponsible spendthrift out to make a fast buck, this kind of person is usually an up-country Berber eager to earn a living, who has all the inbred, native qualities to become a guide, but simply couldn’t produce the required school diplomas, or wasn’t prepared to pay hediya to follow training at the Tabant CFAMM facility in Ayt Bougemmaz


  General view of Tabant, Ayt Bougemmaz (photo: M. Peyron)

Before handing over their money prospective customers are generally anxious to know how professional a TO is going to be in terms of delivering the goods. Like last year, perusal of TO websites with mistakes and inaccuracies of varying proportions come as something of an eye-opener. For example, the Moyen-Atlas Trekking website refers to “l’ascension de l’Ayyachi en 4 jours (nuit en bivouac ou au refuge du Mgoun)”. This is, of course, utter rubbish, Ayyachi and Mgoun being some 80 miles apart! All we can say is: “Hope they get it right on the night!” 

Unfortunately worded website blurbs 

Even worse, some TOs have problems with word processing or with translating from French into English. An unidentified PC-driver at Horizons Typiques managed to substitute the word ‘repos’ (meaning ‘rest’) for the local place-name ‘Tassaout’ on his key-board, thus causing havoc in their Mgoun description. Thus we have “Nous sommes sur le plateau des sources de repos, naissance de repos que nous longeons cet après-midi”, which is utter bunk. One well-meaning French action reporter, describing himself as specialized in “extremes sports” (sic) is so obsessed with the serpentine meanderings of that same Tassaout near its sources that he likens them to “real green snakes among dry stones”! This precedes a juicy bit about “genévriers thuringiens”, as if juniper from Thuringen (Germany, of all places!) grew out there. He then adds, by way of encouragement, “if you’ve never been there before, you’ll get really struck!” He’s also the one who suggests that, properly to look the part, the Atlas traveller should invest in a blue scarf draped around his/her head to live his Morocco experience to the full. The very words, incidentally, that we heard last year at Auberge Ja’afar (Midelt) in the mouth of a New Zealand tour leader heading for the Merzouga sand-dunes. 

But the most hilarious attempts at English, resulting in almost unadulterated gibberish, are to be laid at the door of a Morocco-based TO who shall remain nameless. They are reminiscent of those weird, word-for-word translations you sometimes get on the Web, or in some dialogue out of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. In a general introduction to the Atlas Mountains, we are told that “impact climbing also canyoning are boost in popularity”, while Mgoun is described as a “Morocco third-degree pre-eminent pinnacle”, whatever that means. It then gets better: “Accessibility besides infrastructure tend to dictate areas draw the powerfully attraction”. The would-be trekker is further reassured on learning that he will be guided by a vagrant, one of many “endorsed mountain guides (who) have completed an extensive training vagrancy at Africa unparalleled mountain adventure tours guide training college at Tabant in the Ait Bougmez valley”. Creature comforts will also be catered for, thanks to “basic village houses know onions to administer feverish meals” and “no sweat lodgings for walkers”! Should our Morocco traveller wish to hit the prepared ski-slopes he must know that although “piste options are not particularly expansive, (…) the northern enlightenment of the (one) ski ramp at Oukaimedden, the country crowing-equipped ski resort, gives skiers the boss follow of some downhill life, however shrimp”! Wow! Can it get any better?

Interestingly, careful research eventually revealed that the offending text was identical to a properly worded rendering on the website of our previously mentioned friend Only Punjab. Could this be a case of plagiarism? Aw, shucks, not on your life! 

Hotel chit-chat 


Hôtel wars Midelt, 2002 (photo: M. Peyron)

The travel forum on Midelt hotels is also edifying. While this town can be a useful, jump-off place for somebody working the GTAM in a NE-SW direction, or a welcome break on the Fès-Erfoud drive, on the Trip Advisor page its three main hotels take something of a lambasting. Midelt hotel staff are usually described as friendly, especially in one place where they give “pro active service” at the well-stocked bar and serve an “excellent lamb and prune tagine”. However, visitors to another out-of-town facility complained of the “damp concrete smell” in the bed-room and the general impression of a “random, fake castle experience”. Further complaints mentioned a “dirty, very old, disgusting bathroom”; of the electric wiring that “was ‘interesting’ to say the least”; of a bath-room “that was pre-WWII but functional”; of the slightly kitschy atmosphere… One traveller summed it up most aptly by decreeing that the town was OK as a staging-point for young singles, otherwise it was advisable to “skip Midelt in general”! 


« Skip Midelt »? Not necessarily. A stay at Auberge Ja’afar can be quite pleasant (photo: M. Peyron)

By comparison, at the other end of the range, the McHugo brothers at the Kasbah du Toubkal above Imlil seem to be running a pretty tight ship, with plenty of local involvement, environmental awareness and point-by-point screening of the odd complaint that arises amid the numerous favourable affidavits. Their accommodation certainly doesn’t come cheap, but given the service, the location and general ambiance, you would be hard put to find a more suitable place to put up for the night. Meanwhile, several miles down-valley, Branson’s posh Kasbah Tammadot provides a spot of de luxe competition. Certainly a far cry from one of those previously mentioned “no-sweat lodgings”! 


All in all, then, the Moroccan mountain tourism market remains buoyant, as we head for the 100,000-per-year-trekker goal, with plenty of diversity and innovation to keep abreast of demand. Pious declarations of intent about responsible tourism and concern for the local culture cannot, however, hide the fact that irreparable environmental damage is being permanently inflicted on fragile Atlas Mountain eco-systems and local village societies. But don’t expect the situation to improve soon; if anything, it’ll probably get much worse before it gets any better – unless the economic crisis levels things out. 

Lone Backpacker

          Grenoble, November 2008

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

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