Tour Operator Watch n° 10 Atlas Mountains

Posté par Michael Peyron le 1 octobre 2010

Tour Operator Watch n° 10 Atlas mountains
Morocco : October 2010 

by Michael PEYRON


   Toubkal massif seen from Saturday ssuq at Asni (photo: M. Peyron)  

  The world economic downturn has certainly had an adverse effect on some outside Tour Operators who target Morocco. “Hommes et Montagnes”, for one, the successful Bernezat-founded agency from Voiron (France), formerly active in the Hoggar and Atlas Mountains, went under in the spring of 2010 – not that were shedding any tears. If anything, in terms of mass consumer impact, this is good news; any current indication of a lessening of tourist attention becomes a positive factor.  In fact, even TOs have observed that the remotest Atlas valleys are beginning to feel the wear and tear from regular package tourist visits. This is evident from their sales talk containing ominous references to “les dernières terres sauvages de l’Atlas”, or “une region encore préservée”, as if fully aware that the pressure is on and, as it were, encouraging consumers to sample these areas’ pristine charms before it is too late. We had already detected this hypocritical attitude among TOs some thirty years ago (cf. Working Papers IIa). 


    Megdaz village, Tassaout valley, February 1983, (photo: M. Peyron)

  Current trends  TOs are increasingly aware that, to break even, flexibility is the watchword. More than ever, they’re sub-contracting out to other agencies, pooling customer lists when a particular trip is under-written, or customizing their product to suit clients’ taste and initiative. Nothing new here; in fact, we’d commented on this trend a year or two back.  One new development, however, has been noted: hybridisation. Instead of sticking to one speciality, say, rafting, walking, mountain-biking, two or more of these activities are jointly offered. This becomes a hybrid tour. Actually, Club Med in the Atlas has been a pioneer in this field for some years, combining 4×4 tours with mild walking, Imilchil and points beyond being typical destinations. Recently luxury holiday camps near Marrakech have been going in for this: multiple activities on offer include parapente, accroc-branche, trekking and quads. Another discernible trend is that more and more Moroccan agencies are taking over, which is a good thing in the case of regional firms more likely to plough back funds into the local economy, than selfishly motivated big-city operators. 

The GTAM – now you see it, now you don’t! 

For reasons unknown the powers that be appear to have reneged on the idea of a grand traverse of the Moroccan Atlas (GTAM). End-to-ending has gone out of fashion. Even the Ministry of Tourism booklet containing practical information for visitors no longer mentions the GTAM, not even the palm-tree mountain logo, present focus being on “Mountain and Desert”. On their websites, however, the TOs continue to refer to the GTAM, the GTA, or even (ludicrously) to the “Great Crossing of the Atlas”!


Route of GTAM n° 3, June 2010 (,731986.html)

A certain Pierre Martin would appear to belong to a slightly different category. This freelance trekker, loosely connected with the Grenoble-based magazine, Trek, has been diligently mapping out a “traditional” or “official” GTAM, basically Mgoun to Toubkal in 20 odd days. There have been two variants: one being GTAM n°2 (Imilchil-Hadida in 18 days); the most recently reconnoitred route is GTAM n°3 (Midelt-Bou Taghar). Fully illustrated descriptions of these have been appearing on the web.


Author’s daughter Caroline Mackenzie at foot of ‘Ayyachi during 6-day Midelt-Asif Melloul backpacking traverse, Sep 1998 (photo: M. Peyron)

Although the last-named itinerary is presented as totally innovative, virgin and un-trodden, as if no previous backpackers had ever ventured along these well-worn trails (perish the thought!), at least it provides free info for all and sundry. And, significantly, shows that somebody out there is trying to keep the GTAM alive. For which he must receive all due credit!


 Jbel Ma’asker at dusk seen from Ayt Ouchen (photo: M. Peyron)

Such disinterested openness with information, far from any mercantile considerations, also encourages individual trekkers to do their own thing, thereby taking away some of the TO’s business. Which is all for the good.


Oul-Ghazi village, Asif Melloul, June 1998 (photo: M. Peyron)

However, given the immediacy of life in the global vbillage, when they don’t give the impression they’re operating within a time warp or personal bubble, GTAM newcomers may be totally oblivious to developments past or present on the Atlas Mountain scene. Furthermore, contrary to Morocco-based walkers, outsiders like Pierre Martin arriving through Marrakech airport appear to lack the time and/or the inclination to include the Middle Atlas or Western High Atlas in their versions of the GTAM.

 120tousefseddidec1987.jpgTousefseddi, Asif Melloul, during 6-day Tounfit-Tillougit hike, Dec 1987 (photo: M. Peyron)

On the other hand, some Atlas exponents may wax boastful. This is very much the case with a well-known British North Country TO, who, in setting up a reasonably orthodox Mgoun-Toubkal mountain bike traverse, claims that it is “going where others don’t dare”! Almost as a rejoinder, a rival Brit outfit announces that it is staging the « definitive » Atlas biking traverse, whatever that means! One-upmanship such as this is now unfortunately commonplace in the game.

One individual, however, who seems to be concentrating on doing his own thing and extending a helping hand to Atlas trekkers, deserves a mention right here. Matthew Low, a British mountain instructor and tour leader settled in Imlil a few years ago and seems genuinely fond of the local mountains and their inhabitants. Visit him on

To conclude, while 2010 apparently failed to witness the arrival of 10,000,000 tourists in Morocco, some 80,000-100,000 of whom would probably have made for the hills, only a minimal decline in mountain tourism activity has been observed. However, it remains to be seen whether the downward trend will be maintained in the foreseeable future.

  Lone Backpacker

October 2010

Text copyright by Michael Peyron; material from same may be quoted in compliance with current academic practice.

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