The Morocco earthquake ripped through the Atlas Mountains on Friday 8 September, leaving death and destruction in its wake in one of the most beautiful and remote regions of the country. As the dust began to settle it became clear that the worst hit areas were right in the heart of the High Atlas around Ijoukak and Talaat N’Yaqoub. Although important tourist areas like Marrakech and Imlil were in the quake zone, they survived more or less intact.
Relief efforts were mobilised immediately and, by the morning, the Moroccan police and army had reached the towns and villages along the main road to the centre of the devastation. Around 3,000 people have died in the disaster and many more have been left homeless as traditional clay-built houses collapsed like packs of cards. Newer concrete houses appeared able to withstand the force more, although if they were near the epicentre they crumbled too.
The very beauty of the landscape, which attracts so many visitors, has been its undoing. Small hamlets strung across the peaks, sometimes a day or two days’ journey from a road, were very difficult to reach.
Now, a week on, almost all known villages have received aid and support. Tented camps have been built in every community for the homeless. The food situation is good and food is being dropped by helicopter to the most isolated. All main roads have been cleared and government and charitable aid is getting to the right people.
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Miraculously, no tourists were killed in the earthquake. Morvern Mackenzie was staying in Toubkal refuge at the base of Morocco’s highest mountain when the earthquake struck and spent the following night in Imlil with her guide, Mohamed Aitidar, and his family. She said: “The love and kindness we were show during this time was unbelievable.”
Colleen Cassar, tour leader host for Roam Like Queens, was in Fes with 11 travellers from Australia when the quake happened. “I woke up to our building squeaking,” she said. In the morning, she realised what had happened and consulted the guests. The group is well away from the afflicted areas; all but one decided to stay. “I feel conflicted because here I am prancing around the country having a great time. But I am continuing to put out a positive message about Morocco. It is not just an earthquake. It is a people. It is a culture,” added Ms Cassar.
The decision to stay is warmly welcomed by the local residents who are looking to the future, both immediate and in the longer term. “The last thing the Moroccans want is to be hit by an earthquake and then hit by an economic downturn,” from Mike McHugo, co-founder of Kasbah du Toubkal in Imlil.
Zina Bencheikh, the Manging Director of Intrepid Travel in EMEA, hopes that “the Moroccan government will rebuild in the rural areas in a way that the people can benefit and so when travel comes back it comes back in the right way. It is an opportunity to rebuild this area as an asset to the country and to encourage responsible, ethical and sustainable tourism.”
So, what should travellers do?
“Don’t cancel your bookings,” urges Linda Lyons, owner of Riad Linda in Marrakech. “Our riad is totally fine and most of Marrakech is safe. I had guests staying with me on Saturday who completed their stay and very few cancellations. I’ve even had a couple of new bookings today.”
That message is echoed in the north and south of Morocco, where the impact was marginal. In the High Atlas, Rachid Imerhane, President of the Guides’ Association, says, “Give us two weeks. Right now we are concentrating on our families and our communities. We still have much to do. But after that, we want to get back to work.”
The infrastructure of the country is intact and the roads that were blocked have now been reopened. However, buildings have been damaged and work is already underway to assess them and to then either repair or rebuild them. In Marrakech, there is also the option of staying in the new town, Gueliz, where the buildings are modern and concrete built.
In the Atlas Mountains, Mr Imerhane says they will take the utmost precautions when guests and hikers return. “The trails are actually fine to hike and the safety of our guests is the first thing in our mind,” he said. “We will stay mainly in tents or in gîtes that have no damage to them whatsoever.”
“Guests are from God” is the saying in the mountains, and the resounding message from Morocco is that it wants its vistors to return. So don’t stay away for too long if you really want to help communities re-find their feet.
Dos and Don’ts for travellers
Don’t feel guilty about coming. You are wanted and your visit will give the Moroccans purpose as well as supporting the local economy.
Don’t fly to Morocco to help with the relief effort. Although a very kind impulse, this is being well taken care of and individual interventions can actually be disruptive.
Do make friends in Morocco and see if there is any further help and support to give them in future.
Money is the best gift to give but you can also check with your guide/agency before you arrive to see if anything else is needed if you are travelling into the mountains.
Alice Morrison is an adventurer and author of Adventures in Morocco. She has lived in the Atlas Mountains in Imlil for five years and was there when the earthquake struck.