Morocco border closure over Omicron spells doom for tourism

Morocco tourism

People walk through the Jemaa el-Fna square in the Moroccan historic city of Marrakesh. Morocco's hard-hit tourism operators are facing potential ruin after the country abruptly shut its borders due to the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

Photo credit: Fadel Senna | AFP

Rabat

Moroccan tourism operators are facing potential ruin after the country abruptly shut its borders over the Omicron variant of Covid-19, the latest blow to an industry battered by the nearly two-year pandemic.

The results were immediate: an avalanche of cancellations, hotels shuttered and warnings that operators face bankruptcy.

The latest crisis "has delivered a fatal blow to the sector," said Mohamed Semlali, chairman of the National Federation of Travel Agencies of Morocco (FNAVM).

On November 25, Moroccan authorities suspended "until further notice" direct flights to and from France, where Covid cases were surging.

Three days later, it announced a halt to all incoming passenger flights for two weeks amid concern over the spread of the new, highly infectious variant.

No winter holiday uptick

For tourism operators, who had already endured a second disastrous summer in a row, the news snuffed out any hope of a winter holiday uptick.

"All reservations have been cancelled and most hotels will have to close," said Lahcen Zelmat, head of the National Federation for Hoteliers (FNIH).

"Half of them have been closed since the beginning of the pandemic," he added.

Semlali said the decision to close the borders "will make our situation worse".

'One foot in bankruptcy'

One industry official quoted by the Medias24 news website said the industry faced losses of at least 88 million euros between Christmas and the new year.

The tourism ministry did not respond to AFP's request for comment.

In 2019, the sector clocked up revenues of around 7.5 billion euros, a figure that plummeted by two-thirds in 2020 to just 2.6 billion euros, according to official figures.

In June, the kingdom finally started reopening its long-closed borders, allowing for a modest rebound in the sector.

The country welcomed some two million tourists over summer 2021 — compared to just 165,000 the previous summer, according to the economy ministry.

And with Covid-19 cases relatively low, hoteliers dared to dream that the end of the tunnel was in sight.

But those hopes were dashed by another spike in cases in Europe, followed by news of a new variant the WHO believes could be more transmissible and resistant to vaccines.

Taken by surprise

And as their country joins other states around the world battening down the hatches against yet another wave of infections, Moroccan hoteliers have lost the little hope they had.

"We were very optimistic with the arrival of the new year, but these decisions took us by surprise," said Khalid Moubarak, secretary general of the FNAVM.

"We were on the edge of bankruptcy. Now, we've put one foot in bankruptcy."

Authorities say the severe measures were aimed at "preserving Morocco's achievements in the campaign against the pandemic".

Very bad news

But for Didier Arino, head of the Paris-based consultancy Protourisme, the move is "very bad news for the country's economy because there had been a pickup in reservations for Morocco", as many other countries remained off limits.

"Morocco is an affordable 'nearby sunshine' destination and the French make up a third of visitors," he said.

The timing is particularly unfortunate.

"For the new year holidays, we expected around 100,000 French tourists to visit Morocco. But now they're cancelling," he said.

That is another disaster for a sector that has seen up to 30 percent of jobs disappear since the start of the pandemic, Zelmat said.

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