Morocco Promotes Its Affordability, Diversity

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Reed Travel Features

RABAT, Morocco -- To those whose impressions of Morocco owe more to Humphrey Bogart than to first-hand experience, Morocco is pitching itself as an affordable destination within easy reach of the U.S. With the addition of a fourth weekly flight from New York via Royal Air Maroc in November, Casablanca will be more accessible to those who want to experience the real thing rather than the celluloid version.

Under a new tourism director in New York, Benjafaar Marrakshi, Morocco is hoping to lure Americans to the desert kingdom with a variety of tour packages that offer everything from golfing excursions to self-drive tours of desert oases. Although Marrakshi observed that Morocco is still a mystery to many Americans, he said that this gives the country an opening to promote itself as a relatively undiscovered destination with enough diverse attractions to appeal to any interest.

Compressed into this land the size of Sweden are the Sahara desert, the snowcapped Atlas mountains, Roman ruins, medieval cities and colorful casbahs. Visitors easily can take in these varied sights, via Morocco's well-maintained roads and comprehensive domestic airline network. Indeed, one of the fastest growing markets is the fly-drive segment, according to tour operators specializing in the destination.

And although the kingdom is best known for its historical, centuries-old cities and its dramatic scenery, it also offers a surprising profusion of modern amenities -- beach and ski resorts, world class golf courses and a wide selection of international class hotels and gourmet restaurants.

In recent years, U.S. tour operators have shifted from promoting Morocco as a mere side trip from Spain (a quick ferry trip across the Strait of Gibraltar) to emphasizing Morocco's unique attributes.

Morocco's location, where Europe meets North Africa, accounts for its unique mix of cultural influences; over the centuries, the Berber stock of the original inhabitants of this region has been mingled with European, Arab and African strains. The cities, too, reflect this diverse heritage: Casablanca and Tangier in the north are, naturally, more European, while the influence of the Moorish Empire is more evident in places like Fez and Meknes.

The French colonial period left its mark, with French commonly spoken in most major centers. The country also offers visitors a chance to tour Roman ruins, hike in mountains and shop till they drop in the country's famous souks or markets.

Many international hotel chains have properties in Morocco, including Hyatt, Sheraton and Westin -- which recently opened the Westin Mansour in Marrakesh.

The Imperial Cities, this fabled quartet of cities top any must-see list for visitors. Fez, a three-hour trip by car from Casablanca, has a 1,000-year history as Morocco's intellectual, religious and artistic capital. Fez is home to one of the largest mosques in Africa, the Andalusian-style Kairouan mosque; the city also is known for its large medina, or old quarter, with narrow winding streets with shops displaying wares of local artisans.

Near Fez are two other important imperial cities, Rabat, the county's capital on the coast, and Meknes, a walled city whose arched gates open to stately squares and bustling markets. Outside Meknes are the well-preserved ruins of the ancient Roman city of Volubilis.

Marrakesh is a quick flight or three-hour car ride from Casablanca but it seems centuries removed. This 11th century city is a top tourist draw, with its elegant palaces, palm fringed resorts and its colorful street scene -- best experienced in the sweeping Djemma el-Fna square, which is transformed every afternoon into a circus-like assembly of acrobats, musicians, soothsayers, snake charmers and peddlers.

Agadir is the leading seaside resort on the Atlantic coast, a favorite watering hole of European sunseekers. Essaouira, also on the Atlantic, is a charming fishing village with a historical fortress overlooking the sea. The north coast has numerous beaches and sophisticated resorts, with Tangier the main center.

The South and Casbah Trail is one of the more popular itineraries for Americans. This fabled route takes visitors through the southern portion of the country, which is dotted with imposing casbahs, castles and fortresses that guarded this trading and caravan trail. Among the main cities are Taroudant, a red-earth town encircled by three miles of crenelated walls; Ouarzazate, known for its casbahs, and Zagora, the last major outpost of the French Foreign Legion. Merzouga is where the Sahara truly begins, marked by steep sand dunes.

For information, contact the Morocco National Tourist Office at (212) 557-2520 or Royal Air Maroc at (800) 344-6726.

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