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Harassment in Marrakesh

I am considering visiting Marrakesh for approx 4 days next year. I would like to visit the Medina as well as the desert and Berber villages. My concern is the level of harassment to expect in the Medina. I am traveling with my husband and will obviously be identified as tourists. I would not attempt to go without a reliable recommended guide. My question is this: will we be constantly bothered for money and not even able to ask questions of the merchants or view their goods? I hear you cannot even take a picture without someone demanding money who cant take no for an answer. Will the guide ward this activity off?
I have traveled to Europe on several occasions and know how to avoid the usual scammers. Also been lucky!

Posted by
5770 posts

Harassed? No. Hassled a bit? Maybe a little, but nothing any reasonably savvy adult can't deal with.

On my first trip to Morocco, in the 1990s, I was a solo backpacker. I was constantly hassled by "touts" - invariably young men, who seemingly had nothing better to do and who saw me as a means of gaining a few dirham (unemployment was something like 50% among young men - I sympathized, but only to a point).

"Hello, friend! You need guide?" Was constantly tossed at me as I walked by. A polite but firm NO, thanks did not stop the probing. "Friend, you need hotel?" NO, leave me alone did not either. "Friend, I just want to practice my English with you!" "OK, here's some English: Leave me alone. I told you three times. You understand?" "You racist? You don't like arabs?" You get the idea. I tried just shrugging, shaking my head, pretending I didn't understand, they cycled through a dozen languages, trying English, French, German, Dutch, Norwegian, Russian, others I could only guess at. It was pretty annoying.

Morocco had a really bad reputation for that, and I found it was for good reason.

But that was 1994. Things have gotten much, MUCH better. It seems the government figured out that tourists hated this, and were staying away. So they apparently have undercover tourist police in many places - not to catch tourists, but to catch and arrest touts who are hassling the tourists. On subsequent trips, I have seen the touts nearly disappear. There are still some young men hanging around major tourist spots, some furtively (or openly) offering to be your guide, but it seems now No Means No, and they are no longer a major hassle.

Now, you may (probably will) have to say no a few times, but in my experience, in recent years the difference is like day and night.

If there's some snake charmer doing an elaborate performance and you step up and start shooting photos, don't be surprised if they (or their co-worker) approaches you and demands a small payment. Can't help you there.

Merchants will be more than happy to have you visit their shops, check out the goods on offer, and will behave exactly like any other shop-keeper in the world. The only exception would be if you are foolish enough to contract the services of some "guide" who is really just there to steer you into his brother's carpet shop, where you will invariably be subjected to some hard selling. You always have the option of saying no thanks and just leaving, same as at home.

You do not need a guide, period. Read that again. If you can manage in Barcelona, Rome or Paris, or New York for that matter, you can get by just fine in Marrakech or Fez, using the same common sense you would use elsewhere. You. Do. Not. Need. A. Guide. Really, yes, even in the medina. Guide schmide.

Once you actually enter the Medina, any remaining touts will disappear, and you'll be left alone; all the touts hang out outside the medinas, offering guide services, because people are foolishly petrified of going inside unaccompanied, thinking that they will immediately become lost and Osama Bin Laden is going to jump out from behind a pile of sheep's skulls and get you. Once you step inside the medina, you will quickly realize that 1) yes, the streets are tiny and maze-like, but you really won't get lost, and if you do, just keep wandering, you'll eventually come back to where you entered, and 2) it's just a big, vast, very old neighborhood where people live. The people in there don't eat tourists, they're like people anywhere.

You will probably need more than 4 days if you really want to do a city or two, and the real desert.

Avoid at all costs any of the day-trip ferry port cities, do not waste your time there. Fly to Marrakech or Fes. It's dirt-cheap and easy.

Go, have fun, and forget all the silly things that uninformed people have told you to make you freak out. You'll do just fine. Really.

Posted by
261 posts

I agree with David, you don't need a guide at all! In fact, I think a guide would keep you from really experiencing the medina, looking at what you like, stopping at a shop, going at your own pace.
You won't be harassed either. I went with my husband and we never felt harassed. We were offered to be guided maybe twice or three times in 5 days, and we just said no thank you and that was it.
If you like something in a shop and the vendor can tell, they will try to sell you that, and start to haggle, but if you're not interested you can just say that and walk away.

The photo thing is like David said, you can take photos of the city, the medina no problem. But if there's a man with a monkey or a snake and music and your take a picture they will want money. Just use common sense
But again, you DON'T need a guide at all.

Posted by
15063 posts

So I'm going to Morocco in 3 weeks (YAY !!!) on a group tour. I had a talk with friends of mine who took a similar tour this past spring. One thing they emphasized is that people expect tips "baksheesh", especially if you take their photos, but also if they do anything for you. For instance, the tour included tips to all local guides and drivers, but after their desert jeep tour they felt obliged to give the driver a little baksheesh. My friend said that at first he was annoyed, then realized that they are poor people who need to augment their meagre incomes with these small amounts from tourists. He also pointed out that the amounts are mere pittances.

Posted by
3789 posts

May I suggest researching shopping practices. What we consider window shopping may be considered more serious shopping elsewhere. Is Marrakesh one of those places, where if you inquire of the cost of something, it is because you are interested in buying it and wish to enter into a bargaining situation?
Also, I find wearing mirrored sunglasses can cut down on the # of hawkers, and may provide a bit of a buffer allowing you to be less engaged. Eye contact seems to allow them to see your hesitation, naivety or insecurity. The mirror makes them work harder and might give you the chance to stand behind the 'no' and be a little more anonymous.

Posted by
5770 posts

You are over-thinking this. It's not complicated. Welcome to travel in the Developing World.

This all may may sound blunt, but it's true: we are rich, they are poor (relatively speaking). They all would love to have us give them a nice "tip" (or, failing that, a mere pittance) for any service actually performed or dreamed up. Tipping is generally optional, though often customary and expected, just like anywhere. Give the snake charmer a tip if you like - especially if it appears he is performing for you (you're the only one nearby, with a big, expensive-looking camera and you shot close-ups for 5 minutes). If you're distant and you sneak a quick shot with your zoom lens before quickly moving on, they probably won't chase you (at least not very far, if they're busy - they're not going to call a cop, that's for sure). The guy who helps you with your bag would definitely like a tip, just like the guy who helps you with your bags in that expensive hotel in New York. You will know what is reasonable and in your comfort zone, and what is over the top (someone who holds a door open for you) - trust your instincts and do what you think is right. Remember, tipping is optional. Plenty of people never tip at all, anywhere (ask any server in any restaurant at home).

Shopkeepers hope we will buy their stuff (ideally at insane, inflated tourist prices, but very willingly at more realistic prices if you are willing to haggle). If you look at something, touch it, comment about or in any other way show interest, you are no more obligated to buy it than you would be at Walmart or Crate & Barrel. If you hate "haggling" then feel free to pay the inflated price first quoted. If you're OK with bargaining, have at it. I have always found that this works best if you approach it as an light-hearted game, but I'm not very good at it (fortunately, my wife is a haggling ninja). It works the same whether you're in Marrakech or Mexico or Myanmar, but varies from one individual to another everywhere. It may be a dry, simple business exchange, or it could be a complex and enjoyable social interaction. Or both.

Just like in anywhere else, use your common sense, it will be perfectly adequate for any situation you might encounter. Morocco may feel exotic and disorienting (it is) but it works the same way that much of the world does. Don't let all the exotica freak you out - Morocco is actually a lot easier to do than you think it will be, you will be surprised.

Posted by
162 posts

Wow - I am surprised. This is so contrary to what I have read previously. I am encouraged to read your replies. I also would not mind tipping a snake charmer for a cool picture! I was only worried about being constantly barraged by people wanting money and not taking no for an answer. All of your replies eased my mind and I would now dare to venture out without a guide. How many days should I figure? I would like to fly back to France or Belgium as part of this same trip. If I see Marrakesh and do a desert trip I would be happy. I probably will not go to Fez unless someone can convince me to. Just want a taste of this country as it appears to be so mesmerizing.

Posted by
8515 posts

I think others have answered your questions excellently. I had a bit different experience, so here’s my deux centimes.

We spent two weeks there in the 1970s, staying with friends who lived in a city in the Atlas Mountains, visiting villages and the main cities, interacting with professionals, invited into homes, and an official’s residence for tea, danced with the women in a Berber village celebration while my husband went with the men (yes, there were three young sad, repudiated women obligated to dance for the men) and traveled with a friend who had grown up in Marrakesh near the big Place Jemaa el-Fnaa. We also witnessed cultural differences that shocked and marked us forever. We will never forget our experiences though it was 42 years ago. We were a group of 5 Parisians, no guide, no language problem. There were very few tourists back then, except some Europeans in the cities and the hippies living near the beaches.

As much as I enjoyed Turkey—(granted not the same plunge into the culture), I felt unease in Morocco. I sensed resentment due to the remnants of colonialism (remember we’re French speakers) and of course life under the former king.
If I were to return, I’d hire an official, certified guide through an agency, making arrangement ahead of time, not a kid on the street trying every French and English accent he can muster to get me to hire him. If you really want to understand what you are visiting and not just take pictures of striking doorways and snake charmers (which our friend had remembered from her childhood) , get a guide, especially if you already feel uncomfortable.

Posted by
5770 posts

Bets - it's not 1970 anymore. I would dare say that many who visited Paris in the 1970s might not recognize it today, either. :)

The world has changed - a lot. My first trip to Morocco was in 1994. It was edgy. I was hassled a lot. I have a pretty thick skin, but I was still somewhat spooked more than a few times by my experiences on that first trip - and I went to some pretty far-flung, way-out-in-the-hinterlands places. I was adventurous, and I would not recommend everything I did and all the places I went, to inexperienced or fragile travelers. There were a few moments when I did feel my safety was threatened, there were times when I was fed up and just wanted out of there (those episodes were fleeting and passed quickly).

But a lot has changed since then - in Morocco and pretty much everywhere else in the "developing world."

On subsequent trips to Morocco (like everywhere in the developing world), I've been surprised, sometimes shocked, at the pace of change. Most of the things that bothered me on earlier trips have all but disappeared.

Most Americans have no idea that Morocco is now a magnate for mass tourism. Yep, you will see Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken. There are ATMs all over the place. Everyone has a cell phone stuck in their faces, just like where you live. They watch the same TV as you. They're all on Facebook and YouTube and Instagram. There are lots of dirt-cheap flights from all over Europe. You will see "stag parties" of British louts, crowds of football hooligans, and other "western" influences both good and bad. I'm sure you know, Bets, that many, many Europeans - including lots of French people - vacation there. For Americans, I think the parallels to Mexico are very apt: Morocco has become a cheap, quick, easy, accessible "fun in the sun" beach holiday destination. It's "the Cancun of Western Europe" (just without most of the beer).

Yes, it still feels exotic. Yes, there are real cultural differences. Yes, they do not enjoy every civil benefit that EU or Americans enjoy. But the whole world, including Morocco, has become a lot more homogenized since the 1970s, for better or for worse. Anyone who has never been there before, or hasn't been in the past 20 years, is going to be shocked at how familiar and similar it now is to, well, almost anyplace else in the world, same as Bangkok, Beijing, Brussels or Birmingham.

That's not to say one should go blindly, expecting everything to be exactly the same as at home, casting all caution to the winds. Just as you would when going anywhere, don't leave your common sense at home. But I sincerely believe that anyone with enough savvy to successfully visit Barcelona or Naples (or Cancun) will do perfectly fine in Fes or Marrakech, and even in far-flung places like Ouarzazate and Laayoune.

There's lots of irrational fear of unfamiliar places as depicted in popular culture/media that feeds into wild, unjustified paranoia of many places. Morocco is one of them. Don't let that fear keep you from experiencing a wonderful place!

Posted by
261 posts

I loved Fez, liked it even more than Marrakech. It's smaller, the Medina is intricate and absolutely amazing! You just feel like you're in another world.

Posted by
8515 posts

Beautifully written and described, David. Thank you. Indeed, in addition to vacations and partying, it's also a place many Europeans have chosen to retire, but mostly in enclaves.

What you describe convinces me all the more to hire a good guide but for a different reason now. With this homogenization of tourist destinations, I would want someone who can peel back the layers of modernity and introduce me to the distinct cultures underneath. If all I want to do is compare prices for a coffee set in the Medina, I'd go alone, but if I wanted to understand what's around me culturally and historically, especially with only four days in a country with such a radically different history, I'd hire a good guide.

Posted by
15063 posts

Remember me? I'm the one who's going for the first time in 3 weeks (I just love saying that, forgive me :-)

Since you only want to go for a short visit, I'll give you the tour itinerary for Marrakech, where we are spending 4 nights, arriving in the evening.
Day 1 - day trip to the port city of Essouira stopping on the way at a women's cooperative for Argan oil production
Day 2 - tour Marrakech
Day 3 - day trip to the Orika Velley, called the Switzerland of Morocco. Visit Imlil, one of the most beautiful "hanging villages", then continue up to the ski resort of Oukaimeden, near Jebel Toubkal, the highest mountain in Morocco.
Day - visit the Majorelle Garden, then depart for Casablanca airport and an early afternoon flight

There are other day trips as well, so Marrakech sounds like a very good choice for a short trip. There are other day trips as well, and I'd expect to find guided tour groups for any/all of them as well as the option of a private guide.

Posted by
31524 posts

Whenever I travel to "less touristed" locations, I always check the Government websites. Conditions can change over the years, so it's always a good idea to check on the current situation. Your profile doesn't indicate which country you live in, but this is the information from the Canadian government website - https://travel.gc.ca/destinations/morocco .

Posted by
15063 posts

With all due respect to my friend Ken, don't let those travel warnings scare you off. Most of the govt. warnings by the US, and, it seems, Canada, are CYA publications more than anything else. I just read the Canadian warnings for my country and they include "avoid all travel to" certain areas that I and thousands of Israelis and tourists visit often without incident. As for Morocco, AFAIK the only serious terrorist incidents in Morocco were in 2003 and 2007 - more than 10 years ago - and were in Casablanca.

Posted by
31524 posts

Chani,

I agree that the travel warnings are partly for CYA purposes, but they're still a good idea to consider when travelling to more "off beat" locations. The warnings are based on advice from Embassy personnel "on the ground" in each country.

One other important factor to keep in mind is that if the government warning says Avoid All Travel to a particular area, those who ignore the warning may find their travel medical insurance is void. As I've found out, having valid medical insurance is crucial.

Posted by
996 posts

US citizen who was in Morocco earlier this year.

I think earlier posts have described this more than adequately, but I'll add my two cents. I did not feel bothered in ANY city by the locals where I traveled in Morocco, save for one cab driver in Casablanca. (And honestly, I've had similar issues with cabbies in Chicago, so make of that what you will.)

I did not feel hassled in any respect, but do show respect when taking photographs. Some Moroccan people do not feel comfortable having their photo taken, esp by tourists. Always ask first if you can take a photo. As a guest in another country, this is simply courtesy 101.