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Sustainable tourism in the High Atlas – focusing on mountain sports and culture

We – that is Rafael Enzler gutundgut and Barbara Haller Rupf, haller-tournet – were very pleased when we received the approval for the Suisse-Moroccan sustainable tourism project (Tourism Durable Suisse-Maroc short TDSM) by SECO-Swisscontact in autumn 2020.

The aim of the project is to promote the regional economy of the Moroccan province of Beni Mellal - Khénifra and, in particular, the mountainous region of Azilal through an integrated sustainable tourism initiative.

The TDSM 2020-2023 project is structured in three pillars:

  • Pillar 1: Development of a "sustainable tourism strategy " including the derivation of measures

  • Pillar 2: Quality initiative of the accommodation (gîtes), both in terms of service quality and the construction and infrastructure of the gîtes

  • Pillar 3: Training for the mountain (sports) professions, the so-called "Metiers Montagnes".

Focusing on Pillar 3 of the project, our first task was to analyze the tourism potentials of different outdoor activities as well as their situation regarding the guide-formations in Morocco with reference to the international market. In a second step, we launched training initiatives within the sports and activities sector that are important for sustainable tourism, working with Swiss partner organizations as well as taking into account the tasks of pillar 2, if possible. The long-term goal of these trainings is the qualification of local guides as trainers for the next generation of guides according to the "train the trainer approach".

First project year 2021: Back in Morocco after almost 50 years

Due to Corona, the start of the project and thus the important project trip to Morocco was postponed several times. Without having seen a region or spoken to its stakeholders, we felt we could not properly start our work beforehand. To bridge the gap until the start of the project, we conducted online interviews with various local project partners in spring 2021. In retrospect, it becomes clear that these personal conversations provided us with important information to understand the issues of the project. For example, the complex formation and legal situation of the various guided mountain sports was like "the elephant in the room". The issues around the "Guides Espace Naturelle" (Moroccan mountain guides) and the "Faux guides" (clandestine guides without diploma) accompanied us through the whole project and the solution of the related questions will significantly contribute to the overall project success or failure. For the interviews, we decided to engage Lorianne Emery, a professional francophone translator and holder of a Bachelor in tourism.

In June 2021, the three of us were able to travel to Morocco to meet with the representatives of Swisscontact - Didier Krumm, Lhoucine Boufassi and Lamisse Naciri - in Rabat to discuss the project. Furthermore, we had the chance to meet representatives from the ministries of tourism and education as well as the Swiss ambassador Guillaume Scheurer in person. Afterwards, accompanied by Lhoucine, we drove to the project region, met with project partners and participated in a workshop in Azilal with regional stakeholders.

After the official project trip, I took the opportunity to privately experience one of the most important tourist offer of the High Atlas, a multi-day hike (Randonnée) with bivouacs, accompanied by a guide team. I enjoyed the climb of the 4'068m "Ighil M'Goun"; the hike in the dry mountain landscape, the comfort provided by my guiding team - guide, cook and "Mulier" (mule driver) - and especially the conversations with Lahoucine Oulkadi and with his Swiss wife Beatrice Buschor Oulkadi.

I had met Lahoucine at the workshop in Azilal. As guide and “gîteur” (owner of a guest house) of the "Maison Berbère Flilou" he is also part of the project TDSM. During our 4-day hike, we talked about Morocco, the culture and its people, the political issues, as well as about the situation in the valley “Aît Bouguemez”, and of course about the future of the region and the TDSM project. I got on very well with Lahoucine right away, but there was one thing he couldn't understand: that I had traveled to Morocco with my mother as a child but anever returned since then. "Where have you been all the time?", he asked me, shaking his head. "Almost all over the world”, was my answer, “but I'm sure it won't be another fifty years before I return", I replied winking.

The days in the vallee Ait Bouguemez and around M'Goun were key experiences for me; I learned a lot, gained orientation and my commitment to the project and the region grew steadily.

The main findings for the project were that expanding the tourism offer to include new sports has great potential for the economic development of the region. However, a guide-formation in the new activities is practically non-existent and the legal situation is very complex. In addition, the Guide Espace Naturelle compete with the "faux guides" for tourists and work, which leads to controversy, legal disputes and frustration on both sides.

Second project year 2022: The potential of sports tourism in the High Atlas

In the second project year, the results from our analysis of the previous year, the international development in mountain and outdoor tourism and the commitment of the "rafting community" on the Ahansal River and its newly built up federation prompted us to plan pilot formation weeks in the sports of mountain biking and rafting. On the one hand, we wanted to gain a first cohort of qualified guides and on the other hand, we wanted to draw conclusions for further steps of the project. Already during the project trip in June 2021, we had agreed, together with Swisscontact Morocco, that the formations should not take place in Switzerland as originally planned, but in the project region. In this way, we were able to accept a larger number of candidates and offer them lessons tailored to their region. The selection and preparation for the two project weeks was very time-consuming. Even more exasperating from our point of view was the postponement of the mountain bike pilot week to a later date and the cancellation of the cooperation with international partners, which meant that a certification as a guide for the participants was no longer possible and an important project goal was pushed into the distant future.

The pilot week "Rafting" took place from March 20-26 on the river Ahansal in the area of the "Cathedral" (Tilouguit) and became a full success thanks to the two SOA experts Alex Aitken and Norman Schadow. However, the twelve participants could not yet reach their goal of an internationally recognized certification, but they look back on an intensive training week, which brought them and the rafting industry for tourists in the High Atlas a huge step forward.

I myself returned from the rafting pilot week with mixed feelings; I experienced the cooperation with the SOA and its experts as positive and forward-looking. This setting was exactly in line with the goal of the project to connect the formation in mountain sports to the Swiss and international federations and thus to achieve quality and sustainability. But I was also puzzled by the very low and unpredictable water levels of the Ahansal River, the conditions of which will worsen with climate change. Too low water will not only be a headache for rafters but become a major problem for the region and Morocco as a whole in the coming years and decades.

At the end of the pilot week, we climbed the “Cathedral” (mountain) in a small group, a popular weekend hike also for Moroccan guests.

Due to the economic development in the cities of Morocco and the Corona crisis, this target group is currently growing strongly - the Moroccans have discovered their mountains - and they have quantitatively exceeded the international guests by far. However, the tourism value added of these guests still lags significantly behind in international comparison. Nevertheless, tourism providers should focus more on domestic tourism in the High Atlas, which makes a lot of sense also in terms of ecological issues of tourism and the connection between the urban and the mountain areas of Morocco.

As the last step in Pilier 3 for the time being, we compiled the "Catalogue des Sports et Métiers Montagne" in spring 2022, an assessment of the tourism potential of the mountain-sports and activities in the project region with recommendations especially regarding the training of the guides. Besides a literature analysis and the "Benchmark Switzerland", the observations, experiences and conversations of the last year were of course important for the report.

Using a multi-criteria analysis, we assessed 15 mountain sports and activities in terms of suitability in the region/landscape, regional economic potential, ecological and social impact, and guide training situation in the project region. In our view, seven activities have both good tourism and corresponding economic potential, and they fit into the High Atlas from an ecological and social point of view. Here we recommend favoring training opportunities with international recognition and to build up the necessary infrastructure to launch tourist offers.

  • Randonnées from 2-10 days, as a unique experience of nature and culture.

  • Day trips and activities in the mountains and in the villages, with a focus on sports activities and the culture of the region (cultural heritage)

  • Activities with bicycles, first of all mountain biking with/without electric power;

  • Biking has certainly the greatest tourism potential, and especially with mountain biking, an individual value chain could be realized: qualified guides, equipment rental and repair, gîtes, which are also oriented to MTB, would create good income opportunities in the whole region and especially the valleys Aît Bouguemez and Aît Bou-Oulli. At the moment, there are hardly any qualified MTB guides in the project region and especially for the guides Espace Naturelle formation in mountain biking would be a good chance to expand their portfolio and income.

  • Rafting on the Ahansal River during the short season from the end of February to mid-May (focus on domestic tourism)

  • Climbing incl. via ferrata; on the one hand at the internationally known spot “Taghia”, on the other hand also "around the gîtes" as a leisure activity

  • Day and multi-day tours with horses

  • Geological excursions on the theme of dinosaurs, in close cooperation with the UNESCO World Heritage Park M'Goun, as well as caving excursions at suitable locations

This list is supplemented by sports and activities with significantly smaller value-added potential and/or so far little awareness in the project region. On the one hand, these include winter sports such as snowshoeing and ski touring or canoeing/kayaking and canyoning, which can possibly be offered selectively as niches or to extend the season. On the other hand, motor sports (incl. quads) should be deliberately avoided for ecological reasons and the development of ski resorts should also be avoided for economic reasons.

Conclusion and dream for the future

Looking back, we can see that the TDSM project has already brought ideas and actions to the region and that it is developing in terms of tourism "step by step". From this perspective, the project is on the right track, even if the content is continually being discussed by the project leaders and the regional stakeholders, but this is part of the process.

The focus on the topic of training and product development in mountain tourism, also in cooperation with Swiss partners, can be a pilot project for other Moroccan areas as well as other mountain regions worldwide and this approach can be developed further on.

For me personally, the TDSM project has opened up a new world; geographically, culturally and methodologically. I would like to continue my consulting work here as well as in similar projects in other regions and countries and reflect on them continuously.

In addition, it would be a great pleasure for me to pass on the experiences to students and to enable them to stay in the High Atlas. The exchange on tourism, culture and "values" between young European and Moroccan people would be interesting and enriching for both sides. And of course, it would be best if students from the High Atlas could also gain experience in Switzerland.


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