Tour Operator Watch 5 spring 2008

Posté par Michael Peyron le 4 juin 2010

Tour Operator Watch 5 

Report based on field observations, High Atlas, spring 2008 

Two trips by car into Morocco’s Deep South plus a few High Atlas outings between March and June 2008 have unfortunately convinced this writer that the heyday is definitely past, that these beautiful regions are going to the dogs. The culprits, needless to say, are mass tourism, unthinking exploitation of water and other natural resources, together with unstinting development conducted in the name of modernity, progress and (up to a point) social welfare. All well and good, except that nobody bothered to tell the World Tourist Order (WTO) that by dint of their non-environment-friendly activities they were painting themselves into a corner, amounting to a self-destruct of their Moroccan resource. 

Mountain inns, eco-lodges and guest-houses 


Late snow above Imilchil on Tissekt n-Tamda (May 2008)

The pleasantly seedy guest-house in Imilchil where we usually put up before our annual romp through the High Atlas, appears to have fallen on hard times. Proprietor, after providing a kus-kus dinner expertly cooked by his wife, followed by night in bed-room with peeling paintwork and reasonable breakfast, next morning tries to convey impression he’s doing us a favour by charging DH 150,- half pension (May 20). 

Earlier (Mayday weekend) I had forked out DH 400,-  half pension at a marginally posher facility outside Midelt for nocturnal rowdiness and decidedly slapdash service, including a lousy breakfast in noisy, over-crowded dining-hall. Two cases of over-charging but for different reasons. 

The Imilchil proprietor’s attempts to expand existing 6-bed capacity requires self-financing, which is not readily forthcoming, as clientele has dwindled dramatically in the face of competition from other Imilchil gîtes, some of which have jumped onto the bivouac band-wagon – very much the present trend among the eco-business brigade. Thus have the competition been making hay while the sun shines, catering for groups of mountain-bikes up to 60-strong, together with 4WD backup, camping out in highly polluting lakeside bivouacs. To cap it all, the local authorities haven’t got round yet to setting up a waste disposal service. 

Conversely, the Midelti colleague has recently been striking it lucky, expanding his business to include customers from Iberia and Down Under, and playing host to 20/30-strong off-road groups, mostly operating under the banner of some big-name TO or another, thus making it an ideal spot to stay away from during high season or long weekends. Making much of a good thing, the Midelti now overcharges without batting an eye-lid. A pity, really, since Midelt’s reputation as a recommended stop-over has been taking a lambasting on the Web (cf. WWW://, and such behaviour does little to enhance it.


Commercial stickers on door to Imilchil « hôtel » (photo: M. Peyron)

Contrast with Anergui where friendly lodge owner’s wife charges only DH 120,- for half pension, including substantial dinner and breakfast, plus shower and thick carpets on which our 4-man party was able to sleep in comfort (May 21). 

Compare, yet again, with a more upmarket facility, at the confluence of Asif Melloul and Asif n-Ouhansal, with half-pension terms back at DH 150,- . What did we get? Well, tepid spaghetti and booze-inspired song and dance that kept us awake till 11 pm! Juste une petite fête qu’on a organisée pour nos trekkeurs et nos muletiers!”, explains Moroccan guide Hafida next morning over breakfast. Actually hadn’t been much of a fête for muleteers who had dossed down outside on their saddle-bags beneath the trees. Have to admit, though, that our sleeping arrangements had been quite adequate with real beds and mattresses beneath empty light-bulb sockets dangling from the wall (May 22). 


Parking-lot outside Imi n-Warg gîte, May 2008

As all-encroaching tarmac creeps up secluded Atlas valleys, this particular inn is typical of a new kind of roadside facility that is appearing all over. Situated less than three hours from Beni Mellal (a town notorious for its heavy drinking) it can safely guarantee booze supported evenings. So much for respecting local susceptibilities. 


Imi n-Warg gîte near Cathedral Mountain, May 2008 (photo: M. Peyron)

Easy access also attracts a miscellany of visitors: mountain bikers, canyoning and white-water enthusiasts, off-road exponents, motor bike tourers, trekkers, base jumpers, tourists with wheeled luggage in tow, etc. Occasionally, a genuine backpacker knocks at the door and requests admittance. If the place isn’t booked out he’ll probably wonder what he’s letting himself in for – in terms of a quiet evening and restful night, that is! 

In contrast, early-season (June) conditions make for easily obtainable accommodation in the Toubkal area. While the recently enlarged CAF-Toubkal Hut appeared already rundown and slightly grotty to my Moroccan companions, the rival facility (Gîte-camping des Mouflons) just downhill provided an uncluttered dormitory with comfortable two-tier beds that we had to ourselves.


Gîte des Mouflons: competition for CAF-Toubkal Hut next door (photo: M. Peyron)

Half-pension at DH 150,- covered an acceptable dinner and breakfast, including toilet and shower facilities. The latter were much in demand from trekkers camping outside on a platform specially provided for this purpose. In fact, so a guide told me, groups sometimes camped there for three days as part of a Toubkal circuit, making easy ascents of nearby peaks, generally resting up away from it all. However, respectful of present-day milksop trekking trends, they shower regularly and use cell phones to keep in touch with home. 


Friends & inn-keeper, Auberge de la Vallée, Imlil, June 2008 (photo: M. Peyron) 

Back in Imlil, at an unobtrusive inn rejoicing in the name of Auberge de la Vallée, our party enjoyed a good dinner, peaceful night and excellent breakfast, all for DH 100,- 

TO bivouacs: what they look like on the ground 

Which brings us to this new-fangled camping or bivouac craze, now popular with TO groups, and which, in certain areas, bids fair to put some of the local guest-houses out of business.


CAF-Toubkal and Mouflon refuge with TO tents in evidence, June 2008

At the Neltner site, just beneath the new Mouflon Hut, a two-tier platform was crammed with igloo-shaped two-man tents, plus the conspicuous white mess- and kitchen-tents of two (possibly three?) different commercial caravans (June 9). A perfect example of the soft option for TO parties that can avail themselves of the creature comforts (hot meals, showers, flushing toilets, etc.) of the adjoining CAF-Toubkal or Mouflon Hut. 

By this token, the less lucky or hardier types are relegated down-valley. On the opposite bank of Asif n-Aït Mizane, a hundred yards or so downstream, were two similarly organised camps. Half-way down to Sidi Chamharouch, two other camp sites were spotted.


Brit TO bivvy below Tikint n-Wanas, Toubkal, June 2008 (note loo-tent on L)

One, opposite a huge residual snow-field at the exit of Tikint n-Wanas ravine, in addition to the eight regulation igloo tents, plus larger mess- and kitchen-tents, boasted an intriguing little canvas pill-box, probably a portable loo. I had heard stories about these contraptions, pioneered by the Brits, equipped with a tripod-like seat, that can apparently double as showers. 


Brit TO party setting up camp before tea-time (photo: M. Peyron)

While passing the other bivvy site we saw we had arrived at a crucial moment (17:00, June 10, 2008). The muleteers and cooks making up the advance party had finished unloading the baggage mules. The kitchen-tent had just gone up; the mess-tent was about to follow suite. Of the loo-tent, there was as yet no sign. As we watched, the Moroccan tour-leader arrived on the scene, followed by a 16-man crocodile. The trekkers, obviously in a boisterous mood, overjoyed at catching up with visible signs of forthcoming dinner, all pitched in to help erect the two-man tents.(1) 


Forlorn-looking TO bivvy near Sidi Chamharouch, June 2008 (photo: M. Peyron)

By contrast, yet another TO camp further down-valley, a somewhat forlorn-looking establishment, was sited amid straggly juniper left of the main path between Sidi Chamharouch and the Aremd gravel-plain. With a comparatively low cloud ceiling over the darkening, steep-sided Aït Mizane valley the atmosphere in camp must have been decidedly claustrophobic. The usual eight or nine (blue) igloo-tents were up, but there was at the time (18:30) little activity around the mess-tent; just one or two tourists traipsing disconsolately around; killing time before dinner must have been proving a headache. What were the others doing? Washing their socks, or getting a spot of shut-eye? Or attempting to socialize with other party members, which can be a bit iffy when dealing with total strangers and potential killjoys. 

A final bivouac, with now-familiar standard issue igloo-tents, was spotted (19:15) on the eastern edge of the gravel-plain, within shouting distance of Aremd, but critically close to the riverbed. Interesting to see what would have happened in the event of a flash-flood! Next morning, we met this camp’s inmates window-shopping in Imlil with their Moroccan guide from Kelaat Mgouna. 


 Guide from Kelaat Mgouna with TO clients, shopping in Imlil, June 2008

All these bivouacs or camps comply with a set pattern: usually 8-10 red-coloured (sometimes blue) igloo-tents and two larger white tents for cooking and eating purposes. Precisely identical arrangement had been observed in TO bivvy at Bateli (Asif Melloul, May 20, 2008). Party there was made up of one guide and 16 trekkers, 10 mules (each with muleteer, of course), a cook-cum-musician and lady who probably provided help in the cuisine and back-up vocals. On passing their camp previous evening had heard singing and strumming of the luth, light folklore entertainment obviously being part of the package. Interestingly, we had met a certain Muha u-Mimun, who put us up for the night in his hill-top house two hundred yards upstream from the TO camp. Next morning, as the TO party had used his land, he made a point of going down to pocket the rent, before they headed off for Aqqa n-Ouensa, Zerchane and Zawit Ahansal. In all fairness, it must be mentioned that they left the bivvy site fairly tidy, apart from unavoidable mule-dung! 

Respect for the environment 

This is a major issue as nobody’s going to hoodwink the present writer into believing that mass tourism is impacting the High Atlas in an environment-friendly manner. Not after witnessing the existing mess around the heavily visited Imilchil lakes or Toubkal huts. Uncollected litter is the chief offender. Striking that careless, supercilious attitude typical of tourists away from home, visitors casually drop fag-ends, poly bags or coke cans, apparently taking it for granted that somebody else is going to pick them up. 


Guide-led commercial caravan leaves Tizi n-Toubkal for the summit, June 2008 (photo: M. Peyron)

Hence the odd Kleenex hanky or miscellaneous item of garbage spotted on the tourist route to Toubkal; despite the presence of litter-bins near the Kasbah Toubkal Hotel or at Sidi Chamharouch. Having come braced for massive pollution, I was pleasantly surprised, even commenting favourably on this to a Moroccan mountaineer on Toubkal summit (June 10). Ce n’est que le début de la saison,” he replied, “En septembre il nous faudra organiser un ramassage collectif des ordures accumulées !” Mass clean-ups were apparently conducted on a yearly basis, usually early in October. He went on to point out that information panels had been posted in the area and that it was in the local guides’ interest to create awareness about this issue among visitors. Early results were encouraging, or so it seemed… 


Mountain-walkers descending from Toubkal summit by « Voie Normale », June 2008

Also on the debit side is footpath erosion on the Toubkal Ordinary Route. Given the “anything goes” attitude that prevails, there is no way-marking. Moroccan guides are afraid that clear indication of path might take part of their business away from them! This doesn’t make sense as, anyway, a conspicuous main trail meanders up into Ikhibi South, with at least two major variants.

Overuse and corner-cutting have caused savage erosion,(2) especially on a couple of sections that are developing into loose, pathless scree before the “Voie Normale” reaches up towards Tizi n-Toubkal. From there, several variants lead up the ridge and onto the summit plateau. No footpath maintenance is attempted, whereas it is clearly high time this problem was addressed. 


The twinToubkal huts, June 2008 (photo: M. Peyron)

Yet another environmental problem: the Isougane n-Ouaggouns pasture down-valley from Toubkal/Moulfon huts is a sorry sight, much trampled upon by mules, while straggly sections of barbed wire fence (purportedly to protect somebody’s grass patch) have been torn down. 


Creating awareness about the Lammergeier, Toubkal massif, June 2008

On the credit side it must be admitted that the CAF-Toubkal Hut is equipped with an incinerator for refuse disposal. In an attempt to substantiate the grand-sounding “National Park” appellation, various signs and panels have been erected along the approach route up from Imlil: a reminder that proper behaviour towards animals, local population and the environment is de rigueur; an appeal to help protect the lammergeier; hunting and fishing prohibited; exhortations not to pollute river-banks, not to wander off the path, etc. Much is also made the Barbary sheep revival in the area, lately thanks to the Takherkhort reserve near Ouirgane. This emblematic breed of wild sheep fulfils a role similar to that played in the Pyrenées by the brown bear. 



Tamga Natural Reserve notice-board,May 2008

Near Cathedral Mountain (central High Atlas), now a “sweet spot” for base jumpers, a large pedagogical panel at Tamga Forestry Hut reminds passers-by that this is the Tamga Natural Reserve, coupled with a list of protected species of birds and animals. All of which is very fine and dandy. Only the future can tell whether all this theoretical concern for the environment will work out in terms of concrete measures on the ground. Meanwhile, we must confess that it’s a small step in the right direction.

   Lone Backpacker

   Grenoble, July 2008


(1) – On commercial treks participants are supposed to help with setting up camp, an activity perceived as a chore by some elderly persons and likely to cause friction with muleteers if the latter have to do it for them. 

(2) – Though no worse, perhaps, than on similarly frequented path between Près de Madame Carle and Écrins hut in Dauphiny Alps (France). 

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


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