MARRAKESH,(Reuters) – With its snake charmers, storytellers and palm trees against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, Marrakesh was once an offbeat destination for rich or adventurous Europeans.
Now hotels, holiday homes and golf courses are transforming the ancient city into a mass tourism destination, leaving some residents fearing the development may be too much, too fast.
“Tourism brings only illnesses and social deviance,” said one young man in a recent survey of local attitudes.
“You’re wrong,” interrupted his mother. “It is thanks to these people that we have bread to eat.”
The government wants to double the number of tourists to Morocco to 10 million per year by 2010. Last year it approved investment projects around Marrakesh worth over $2 billion.
The aim is to divert some of Europe’s wealth and narrow a glaring wealth gap.
Marrakesh may be only an hour by plane from Spain’s Costa del Sol but it lies in a country that last year ranked 123rd out of 177 in the U.N. Human Development Index, which measures such factors as child mortality and health care.
The city’s population has doubled in two decades as droughts led to a gradual exodus from the surrounding countryside.
Tourists are drawn to the old medina’s narrow streets where mules and scooters jostle just yards from the trickling fountains of shaded traditional riad courtyard homes.
But veiled women sit begging near marble-clad riad hotels that cost up to 3,000 dirhams ($350) per night. Security guards are posted at the doors of new shopping malls.
Foreigners have bought and restored more than 1,000 riads in the medina, creating much-needed work for local craftsmen but also forcing house prices up five-fold in 10 years.
Some tourists flout travel advice and dress scantily, or sunbathe on their hotel terraces, shocking the local women hanging out their washing.
Ageing European men can be seen socialising with young Moroccan women in the city’s night clubs, stirring suspicions that sex tourism is growing.
Europeans complain of being hassled to buy gifts – without realising competition is fierce. One purchase could feed a shopkeeper’s family for days.
Morocco’s moderate Islamists, tipped to do well in parliamentary elections this year, say they would not reverse the government’s tourism drive if elected.
But they say European tourists and home-buyers must respect local customs and pay decent wages to Moroccan employees.
“Some foreign residents took maids and security guards but did not pay them proper wages, just giving them old clothes and a few coins — they saw luxury at a low cost,” said Younes Bensliman of the Islamist Justice and Development Party.
Local activists say poverty and the breakdown of family ties leave many young people vulnerable to exploitation: newspapers have written of street orphans lured with gifts to houses where they were abused and filmed by foreigners.
“It’s a growing phenomenon,” Adil Abdellatif of Moroccan human rights group AMDH. “There are cases we know about but we know there are others. It’s the tip of the iceberg.”
Police have told worried locals that child sex tourism is not widespread and the situation is under control.
Little escapes the authorities because of Morocco’s traditional network of “moqaddems” — government agents who keep a close eye on local life and pay car park attendants and cigarette sellers for information.
In over 80 cases of child sexual abuse documented in Marrakesh since mid-2004 by the association “Ne touche pas a mon enfant” (Don’t Touch My Child), eight involved foreigners, Abdellatif said.
Many Marrakshis hotly deny they are swallowing their pride for the sake of tourist dollars and say they want visitors not just for their wallets but for the diversity they bring.
Unlike the more conservative cities of Rabat and Fez, Marrakesh has a tradition of welcoming strangers.
When the trans-Saharan caravan routes were still in use, it was a gateway to the south and in Djamaa El Fnaa square, peasants from the Atlas, Souss and Draa rubbed shoulders with Senegalese traders, Touaregs and Saharan “Blue Men”.
The biggest change is taking place on the edge of town where leisure developments, swimming pools and lush lawns are spreading across the arid terrain.
Five golf courses have been built and developers have asked for permission to lay out another 10. With a new town, Tamansourt, due to house 300,000 people, farmers are worrying about dwindling water supplies.
Local officials say new dams under construction will capture enough water from the melting Atlas snows to feed the growing city. French-owned water company Lydec is building an 800-million-dirham ($95 million) plant to recycle used water that once spilled into the river and polluted the water table.
Farmers often waste half the water they use for irrigation and are being helped to invest in more efficient modern technology, said Abdelaziz Belkeziz, regional inspector at the ministry for land settlement, water and environment.
Officials say well-managed development could transform the lives of struggling families, but conversations with residents betray a sense of disquiet.
“It makes me uneasy when I see luxury hotels opening in poor parts of the medina,” said Frenchwoman Laetitia Trouillet, who makes fashion accessories and organises tourist shopping trips.
Some Moroccans say foreigners aren’t the only ones to blame.
“What shocks many Marrakshis, including myself, is the way some rich Moroccans splash their wealth around,” said Fouad Chafiqi, a local academic and development consultant.