With the expansion of routes from its international airports and the increase in low-cost airlines offering direct flights from European hubs, Morocco has become much more accessible in recent years. For many visitors, a trip to Morocco will be their first time in Africa or in a Muslim country. Morocco has become so close, yet still seems so exotic and different. As such, even the seasoned global traveler should consider some tips for visiting Morocco in an ethical, culturally and environmentally responsible way.
Morocco has a multi-cultural and multi-religious past but is a predominantly Muslim country today. Moroccans are typically tolerant of other religions and most visitors – particularly those of the Jewish or Catholic faiths will easily find places of worship in large cities.
There are a few simple words of advice which will ensure your visit to Morocco is respectful to local customs and Islamic practices. Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter mosques. If you are interested in Moroccan Islamic history, practice and architecture, many historical madrasas (Koranic schools, for example in the cities of Fes and Marrakesh), marabouts (tombs of revered saints dotted all around the country and often pre-dating Islam) and zawiyas (homes to Sufi fraternities practicing music, song and trace – for example the gnaoua brotherhoods of Essaouira) are open to visitors.
Muslims are invited by the muezzin or adden to pray five times per day. You will hear the call to prayer in the largest cities and tiniest villages. Many attend the mosque at this time, although Muslims often pray wherever they are, for example at home, at work or at the side of the road if they are travelling. The prayer is generally short (except on Friday lunchtimes) and so if you see a storekeeper praying, or he is absent attending the mosque, just wait a few moments or come back later. Fridays are the main day for religious observance and many businesses shut for Friday prayers in the middle of the day or all afternoon. Many mosques cannot contain their congregations on a Friday, so praying men and their mats spill out into the street, especially during Ramadan (a holy month of fasting and religious observance which passes through the lunar calendar, beginning around 12 days earlier each year). If you can pass by, do so quietly and without staring and do not take photographs of those praying or of the inside of the mosque. There are many resources to introduce visitors to the principles of Islam and your guide will be happy to explain a few basic facts.
In general, Moroccans do not enjoy being photographed by strangers. Some have recognized that travelers like to capture the different, exotic and attractive aspects of Moroccan life on film and will sell the right to photograph them. It is your choice whether you go along with this. In any case, try to be discrete in your photography (a phone camera is much less obvious than a large SLR) and ask if you would like to take a direct portrait. Don’t be surprised if your request is refused, and if so, please respect this decision.
Visitors to Morocco are often surprised about the range of ways that Moroccan women dress. Most dress modestly, in keeping with Islamic custom, many wearing the jellaba (a hooded, ankle length robe) and headscarf. In cities, many wear Western dress with or without a headscarf. You will see few burqas of the type associated with the Gulf region or Afghanistan. In order to avoid stares or unwanted attention, it is best for visitors also to dress modestly. Keep your swimwear for the beach and always cover at least your shoulders. Women will find their visit much more pleasant if they also avoid revealing necklines and cover up down to the knees. A scarf or pashmina is also handy for moments when you feel the need to conceal your head or shoulders from unwanted stares, the hot sun or over-zealous aircon. In the evenings in the winter months (and even more so in the mountains or the desert), sunny days become chilly nights and you will need to bring a sweater or even a jacket.
On your trip to Morocco with Travel Exploration, you will be fortunate to visit bustling cities and untouched nature. The pace of development and increased tourist numbers put a pressure on local infrastructure with which the authorities are struggling to keep up. This is especially true of natural resources and the environment. Please be sensitive to the water use that your visit entails and try to conserve water where possible. Local tap water can antagonize foreign stomachs; consider using purification tablets or devices or at least buying bottled water in the biggest bottle you can carry to cut down on plastic waste. Dispose of your trash responsibly. In rural areas, where there are limited waste collection or treatment services, your guide will often advise you to bring your non-biodegradable trash out to the next large town.
Many under-educated young people flock from rural villages to cities and resorts in the hope of earning a living, but the limited number of jobs and their limited skills means that opportunities are few and these youngsters often resort to begging or scams to earn a crust. Poor families sometimes send their kids into the street to shine shoes, sell tissues or beg – a more immediate revenue stream than sending them to school. Ultimately, each tourist will make his or her own decision about how to deal with this situation. Recognizing the reasons behind it will help you remain polite, whatever your reaction to their need. If you decide to give, a few dirham is reasonable but you may prefer to give a child a pen or buy a beggar a meal rather than offer money. If you wish to make a donation to charities which seek to alleviate poverty and help families in difficult socio-economic situations, your Travel Exploration adviser can make a recommendation.
If you are fortunate to be invited to eat with Moroccans, be aware that they often eat from a communal dish. Wash your hands thoroughly before eating and only eat with your right hand. Moroccans use bread like cutlery and to avoid touching food which might be eaten by another. Follow their lead or request a fork or a spoon. Eat what is in front of you without ‘invading’ the portion of your neighbor and politely refuse (at least once) before accepting the morsels which are likely to be proffered to you as the guest by the hosts. Moroccans are very proud and will often object to you paying for their meal or drink, but if you insist (and you win the battle), they will never forget your generosity and will seek to repay it.
Tourism provides an income for a large number of Moroccans and their families, but it also creates tensions as locals are exposed to different cultures, values (and money) that they often do not fully comprehend or appreciate. On the whole, Moroccans are extremely resilient, tolerant and hospitable people. If you make a small effort to respect their culture, religion and customs you are sure to have a rich and rewarding insight into a fascinating country and to create friendships and memories to last a lifetime.
Written by Lynn Sheppard
Lynn Sheppard has lived in Essaouira, on Morocco’s Atlantic Coast for more than 2 years, supporting local non-profits, writing and becoming an expert on all things Swiri (ie. Essaouiran). She blogs at Maroc-phile.com and for other travel industry clients.