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Morocco Tour - Smithsonian Journeys Oct24-Nov4, 2015

Information of interest to fellow Rick Steves alumni who are considering a Morocco tour. Lesson Learned.
Smithsonian sponsors some wonderful small group tours. This one called "Passage of the Moors", was a brand new offering for Smithsonian and was centered on learning more about 'al-Andalus', that 700 year caliphate in southern Spain and northern Africa. The Spain portion of the tour in Seville, Cordoba and Granada was excellent. Our Smithsonian Spanish tour director and Spanish tour guide were incredible people who worked hard (too hard) on our behalf during the entire tour. Our Smithsonian expert speaker gave a number of talks on 'al-Andalus' that were all we could have hoped for, and he traveled with us on excursions to interpret sights and answer questions.
However, the Moroccan portion was very disappointing and I want to let y'all learn from my experience. Smithsonian outsourced the Moroccan part of the tour to another organization - Voyages to Antiquities - which uses a tour ship Aegean Odyssey as the main transport and sleeping base. Once under the control of the ship's tour administration, our small group of 18 Smithsonian people was combined with other groups to make up a herd of 40+ per tour bus for each excursion. We became members of that despised, pathetic, nose-to-tail donkey train of lame tourists trailing behind an umbrella-wielding guide who yelled non-stop into our "whisper systems". We saw quite a lot in a few days, walking medinas and souks in Marrakesh, Fez, and Tangier, viewing a number of breathtaking mosques, and hearing a ton of tourist guide patter about Morocco past and present.
Our interactions with Moroccans were totally controlled and scripted, confined to being taken to herb, metal, leather, and carpet emporiums (cleverly advertised a 'local craft cooperatives' where we would learn {{whatever}}). You all know that story. We stayed in 'luxury' hotels (translation: full of tourists just like us) and ate in 'quality' restaurants (ditto, surrounded by hundreds of people just like us), isolated and sealed off from any personal interaction with anyone not involved in the tourist industry.
So, there you have it.

Morocco is a gorgeous country, with exotic scenes and people, a rich intricate history, a surprising range of climate and landscapes, all layered with the arts, languages and customs of thousands of years of cultural exchange.
Go, definitely go. Morocco is modernizing fast, but with an intelligent eye to maintaining the richness and beauty of its past.
Just do a better job that I did of researching your tour support system if you decide to use one. Having been there now, I know that Morocco and its wonderful people can be experienced "Thru the Back Door". Don't settle for anything less!

Posted by
9674 posts

Weathergal, thanks for the trip report and so sorry you experienced such disappointment on what was surely not an inexpensive tour.

Posted by
6868 posts

What would you have done differently without also losing the positive aspect (the Smithsonian led part of the tour)? Any other tour operators you would recommend for Morocco? Nat Geo looks great, but VERY expensive.

Posted by
4 posts

Agnes - do not have any alternatives at this time. Just got back from the tour, and attention is on editing photos and also on getting ready for a trip in December.
I will not do any more research until we decide to go to Morocco again. We read (and used as a reference) the Lonely Planet "Morocco" guide and it is up-to-date. That guide would be a good start on access to cultural sites, smaller hotels and good local cafes as well as getting bus service for transportation. I would then look for a small in-country custom tour operator or guide service(s) for the tricky parts (navigating the medinas and souks). Will also ask our Spanish guides for recommendations when the time comes, as they had fiends and contacts that work with English-speaking tourists.

Posted by
1772 posts

Weathergal
Do you know if the Spanish part of your tour was affiliated with a company called Odyssey Unlimited? It was my understanding ( from our Odyssey Unlimited Spanish tour guide) that Smithsonian contracts with that company.

OU might be an option for those wanting to visit Morocco with a small tour. While Rs tours are still our first choice, when they don't have the itinerary we want we would use OU again. If you look them up, don't confuse Odyssey Unlimited with Odyssey Tours.

Posted by
4 posts

Patty - our Spanish tour guides were currently employees of AHI Travel (the company which handled the bookings for the entire tour). Some of their tours are 'for' AHI clients and some are 'for' Smithsonian clients, as I understand it from our conversations.
Your response about alternatives is exactly what I had hoped to generate with my post. Among ourselves, I believe we have enough travel experience to come up with more 'Rick Steves', citizen diplomacy types of travel options for Morocco. Thanks for your input.

Posted by
6868 posts

I scanned the description of the tour and don't recall seeing maximum tour group size - was that info left off the small print? There is nothing in the description that suggests these are two sub-trips with different tour leaders and group makeup (it just mentioned the ship). Whatever the case, I hope you give Smithsonian feedback like this so they can improve the Moroccan portion of the trip. I am guessing that, by law, they need to use local guides but I hope they can select companies that limit group size at the same price point (so you could get the type of local interchange you're looking for, which is really hard to do with big groups).

Posted by
459 posts

Highly recommend OAT, Overseas Adventure Travel. Their Morocco trip includes camping in the Sahara, visits & meals in family homes, maximum of 16 people in your group, superlative native-born guides, terrific itinerary. Great bang for your buck. All their trips are very well priced: founded by underpaid teachers who still wanted to see the world. Morocco's amazing. Go!

Posted by
4 posts

Stewart - Bingo!!! Just what I was hoping for - better options that my tour choice.
So, OTA is on our list now for person-to-person tour assistance.

Posted by
260 posts

OAT is headquartered in Boston and has excellent customer service, similar to RS. I'm going to going to Israel with them in April (and considering their add-on trip to Jordan which includes lots of time in Petra.