News Analysis: Is Morocco the next regional hotel hotspot?

Hotelier investigates the spate of signings in the North African country that highlights its growth potential

The Vision 2020 programme aims to increase the number of tourists visiting Morocco.
The Vision 2020 programme aims to increase the number of tourists visiting Morocco.

Morocco is being hailed as the next hotspot for hotel expansion in the Middle East and North Africa region, with an influx of hotels set to open in the next few years. To name a few examples, AccorHotels started operating the first Fairmont in Morocco this year; Marriott International opened Fes Marriott Hotel Jnan Palace in January 2017; Rotana signed an agreement to manage a property in Morocco in 2018; and two new Hilton hotels are set to open in 2017.

Hilton development director, Middle East & North Africa Feras Hasbini sees huge potential for both business and leisure tourism in Morocco. “The country, which is poised to become an important African economic hub, benefits from a well-developed infrastructure that links the major cities, tourist destinations and airports. It is also ideally located close to Europe, making it a popular destination for European tourists,” he told Hotelier Middle East.

But that’s not the only indicator. A report from BMI Research says the future is looking good for Morocco on several key levels: political stability, social standards and economic outlook.

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Morocco has been identified as a key expansion location by global operators. Hilton re-established a presence in Morocco in March 2016 with the successful opening of Hilton Garden Inn Tangier City Center. In June 2017, it opened a second hotel in the country, Hilton Tangier City Center, and earlier this year, signalled its intention to ramp up expansion in North Africa with the establishment of a dedicated development department in Casablanca. According to Hasbini, the hotel giant sees great opportunity to further its presence in Morocco and already has a number of properties in the pipeline including Hilton Garden Inn Casablanca Sidi Maarouf and Hilton Taghazout Bay Resort & Spa.

Marriott International also opened Fes Marriott Hotel Jnan Palace, a new property under the signature Marriott Hotels brand located in the heart of the city of Fes this year. The hotel represents Marriott’s entry into Morocco and Marriott International's first property in the city of Fes. Marriott International Middle East and Africa president and managing director Alex Kyriakidis said: “We are thrilled to be opening our first Marriott Hotel in Morocco and we believe the property will play a significant role in catering to the desires of business and leisure tourists alike. Marriott is committed to the North African market, and our rapid expansion demonstrates our belief in the continent’s booming economies.”

Moroccan hospitality chain Atlas Hospitality and FTI Group, the fourth-largest tour operator in Germany, formed a joint venture to invest $108 million in the Moroccan hospitality industry in December 2016. According to a report by Morocco World News, the venture will be overseen by the Moroccan Ministry of Tourism, which is working on a plan to boost sector growth by 2020. The report went on to add that the partnership aims to “build a minimum of four new hotels in the next two years. Some currently operating hotels are also expected to benefit from this partnership, including the Atlas Targa Club, the Idrissides Urban Club as well as the Dunes d’Or Beach Club in Agadir”.

Four Seasons Resort Marrakech director of sales & marketing Holger Frehde told Hotelier Middle East that there’s great potential for hotels in North Africa. The operator first opened the Four Seasons Resort Marrakech in 2011, followed by the Four Seasons Hotel Casablanca in 2015 and it is working on another opening in Rabat, the capital of Morocco. AccorHotels also signed a hotel management agreement with New Mauritius Hotels Limited, which saw the relaunch of an existing Morocco resort under the Fairmont Hotels & Resorts brand in May 2017. The reflagging of the property, now named Fairmont Royal Palm Marrakech, marks a significant step for the luxury brand in Africa with its first property in Morocco.

However while luxury hotels have set their sights on Morocco by focusing on  the main cities of Marrakech, Casablanca, Agadir, Rabat, Tangier and El Jadida, there is still a need for branded budget and mid-market hotels.

This need is tied into the growth of Marrakech’s appeal as a tourist and MICE destination. The ‘Red City’ has successfully attracted the MICE sector according to a recent HVS report, where hotels have made efforts to promote the low tourist season to MICE sectors. The strategy is backed by Morocco Vision 2020 and has focused efforts on the development of MICE infrastructure, the report goes on to add.

According to Frehde, the Four Seasons’ resort and the destination are performing “amazingly well”.  With the arrival of the COP22 in November 2016 to Marrakech, the city business has been thriving and “occupancies are higher than ever”, he told Hotelier.

Adding to Marrakech’s tourism appeal is the rise of Instagram travellers and social media influencers snapping pictures in the many “riads” of the city. One case in point is of the Riad Yasmine in Marrakech; its operation was taken over by a French couple, Gabriel Paris and Alice Tassery, in 2015. In an interview with Mashable, the duo stressed that its new blogger-focused social media strategy has reaped dividends. The website reported in November 2016 that more than 80% of guests come to the Riad because they have seen pictures of it on Instagram and Pinterest.

Morocco is also cashing in on the TV phenomenon that is ‘Game of Thrones’. The cities where ‘Yunkai’ (Ait Benhaddou) and ‘Astapor’ (Essaouira) were filmed have become a pilgrimage destination for HBO watchers, along with Ireland, Iceland, Spain, Croatia, Malta, and Scotland.

King Mohammed VI’s successful implementation of the Vision 2010 programme saw tourist arrivals increase to 9.3 million visitors from four million in 2000, as reported by Federation Nationale de L’Industrie Hoteliere (National Hotel Federation), and he has now set his aim higher. The King’s new Vision 2020 programme aims to increase the number of tourists visiting Morocco to 18 million by the year 2020. Some 10.3 million tourists visited Morocco in 2016.

The increase in international visitor arrivals was driven by a number of factors including re-introduction of several airline routes that had been suspended during an economic downturn, as well as the city’s emergence as a MICE and events tourism destination.

Under Vision 2020, the government aims to double the size of the tourism sector, making Morocco one of the world’s top 20 tourist destinations by 2020.

According to Frehde, what makes Morocco a good place to invest for international hotel companies is that the country is a safe destination, one where the King has been very focused on bringing in more tourism. “He has created highways, connected the imperial cities and is developing beautiful oceanside destinations, both on the Atlantic and on the Mediterranean. All these combined make Morocco a very good investment destination,” he said.

According to Frehde, hoteliers have for years been very involved with tourism boards. They bring social media expertise to local entities and work with many local social media influencers. “Morocco, and Marrakech in particular, has been a celebrity hotspot for years,” he added.

An open-skies agreement with Europe has removed the limit on EU flights to Moroccan airports, so now, a significant number of flight routes have opened up from key source markets including Germany, France and Spain.

In addition, La Societe Marocaine d’Ingenierie Touristque (SMIT), an investor support system, plays an important role in the development of tourism in Morocco. SMIT makes the country a more attractive place to invest in tourism by acting as a ‘one stop shop’ for investors.

For Hilton’s Hasbini, with an attractive tourism offering, strong government support and organisations such as SMIT, the future looks bright for hospitality in Morocco.

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