Throughout the length of this trip, I have witnessed some situations that have left me wondering if tourism does more harm than good.
The camels in Merzouga (Maybe I like animals more than I do humans)
As part of our tour around the country, we were scheduled to spend one magical night in an Amazigh camp in the Sahara desert. Not only would we get to star gaze, we would also get to ride camels. Before getting there, I had some sort of pride for having ridden horses, donkeys and elephants. So exciting! Another animal to add to the list. We stopped at a hotel on the edge of the Sahara in the town of Merzouga. After leaving everything that we would not need for the night in the hotel, we walked through a small, communitarian date plantation towards a site where the camels were waiting for us.
At first I was excited for riding the Camels, although they weren’t really Camels, they were Dromedaries. There is a big, big difference between the two: Camels have two humps and Dromedaries have one. Believe me, as I was soon to find out, two humps are better than one.
From the distance, the animals looked just fine. The saddles were a little shabby, but nothing extraordinarily bad. It was when I got up-close that I started to doubt my excitement for riding a Dromedary.
I approached one of the animals and as I did, it turned its head towards me. Immediately I noticed that its nose was deformed. It wasn’t a deformity due to genetics, no, it looked as if its nose had been tied to something and that something had pulled very, very hard.
I would later find out that the culprit was the rope that the owners tied to the nose of the animals in order to guide them. Then I started to notice how the ropes from the saddles were cutting into the skin, bits of these plastics ropes were being swallowed by the animals as they chewed on them and the animals also had some massive ticks. Now the ticks are natural of course, but their presence denotes the lack of care that was given to the animals. If the owners looked out for the animals they would remove them, especially if tourists are going to ride them as they might notice the ticks and get the same idea that I did.
All of this for the entertainment of tourists? Just so that people can feel special?
Rather than feeling special and excited for riding the Dromedary I felt sickened for contributing to their mistreatment. Then I started thinking about the Elephant sanctuary that I had visited in South Africa a month or two before. Similarly, I was quite excited about riding the elephants and walking around with them. I could not feel the same way about that, however. They were being exploited, but their caretakers were much more caring and the cause was different. Riding the back of the elephant had a much higher cost and all of that money went to the maintenance of the elephant rehabilitation center. So there was a trade-off there. Yes, the animals were used, but in doing so more good was done. (Hopefully)
Now doesn’t the same apply to the “camels”? They are exploited so the community can get some money to survive. For some reason I feel like that is not good enough. I suppose that if they really had to survive on the “camel rides” they would take care of their animals since they are the source of income. Although, I suppose they could have other more pressing matters to take care of before the camels and if they are poor, it’s not like they could do much better than using regular plastic ropes to tie the makeshift saddles to the animals.
Or maybe, the way they treat their animals reflects their thoughts on the tourism industry and the tourists themselves. After all, if you are poor and a bunch of foreigners with more economic power than you come to your town to have fun while you break your back every day to eat bread, you might not think highly of the tourists. The camels could represent that gap between the poor villager and the wealthy tourist. The camel, an animal that the villagers use to move stuff around because they don’t have enough to keep a car, is used by the tourists to fool around the desert – to have fun.
So does tourism do more harm than good? I could not answer that question just yet. I had a better idea after the experience in the Amazigh camp itself.
The camel ride lasted about 30 minutes so we didn’t go too far into the Sahara. It might have been a kilometer or two max. We stepped off the dromedaries and walked up and down a dune to a group of tents inside a small fenced area. The camp was in between a couple of dunes so it was protected from the gusts of wind that came and went.
The tents were set up in a circle such that there was a sort of common area in between where we would later have dinner and finally sleep – Sleeping inside the tents wasn’t as exciting as sleeping under the stars.
Dinner came and we had some very good vegetable couscous. There are two main varieties of couscous from what I came to understand: Vegetable couscous (meat, steamed vegetables and couscous) and Non-Vegetable couscous (I could never find out the name) which was couscous, meat and caramelized onions with raisins. I personally favored the second one with the caramelized onions since I really liked the combination of sweet with the meat.
After dinner, the common area was cleared of the tables and couches so that there was space for dancing. The tibilats and the krakebs (musical instruments) came out and the Amazigh started playing and singing some typical tunes.
I was enjoying myself quite a bit, I even joined the dancing! The problem began when they started shouting “Africa!”
That is when I really started thinking that tourism was doing more harm than good. I feel like by shouting Africa, the Amazigh were reducing themselves to the Orientalist image of the typical African.
Morocco is in Africa, but it is not Africa. By shouting Africa they undermine their entire culture and that of every other African country. It’s not like the whole of Africa is the same. It angers me so much. It makes me think of the idiots that think of Africa like a country rather than a continent. I came to Morocco to experience the Moroccan culture. I came to the Amazigh camp to experience the Amazigh traditions, not to live the Orientalist image of Africa.
The fact that they shout Africa means that previous tourists have found such a thing amusing. I’m sure that the Amazigh don’t relate to “Africa!” I’m sure that they feel that their culture has reduced to an amusement to foreigners and maybe they come to accept this. What could be sadder than a culture becoming an attraction? The cultural loss that this entails should make everyone ashamed because when culture becomes an attraction, only the parts that amuse the most are kept.
I left the Amazigh camp with a bitter-sweet feeling. I was happy that I had gotten experience more or less experience the Amazigh traditions, but at the same time I felt disappointed.
Next came a couple of nights in Marrakesh, which brought me even closer to a conclusion.
In Marrakesh we visited the infamous souqs where stories say tourists get ripped off by skillful shop owners, cobra charmers and monkey handlers. At night, this plaza was always buzzing with what seemed like a million people. But what I want to talk about is not the souqs, nor the food stalls fighting for your attention nor the deft pickpockets.
It’s the snake charmers, the monkey handlers, and the Gnawa singers with the tarboosh who prowled the plaza for unsuspecting tourists.
I understand that everyone is out there to make money. I’ve expressed that before. Inevitably culture becomes a medium for the attainment of wealth. Tourists want to see the traditions of the place they visit so people take those traditions and exploit them and in the process these lose part of their charm. When you walk around the souqs you have the Gnawa singers chasing you around trying to get money from you. The ones that I witnessed did not even sing for 2 minutes. They might have sung for about a minute and then immediately stuck their hands on asking for exaggerated amounts of money. The same happened with the snake charmers that will chase you around, put a snake around your neck and then proceed to charge you 200DH for the experience. And the monkey handlers… Their monkeys will grab on to you until you pay. All of this led me to dislike the traditions and categorize them as gimmicks.
Does tourism do more harm than good? It’s hard to say. From the experiences that I had in Morocco, at a cultural level, it might do more harm, but then again tourism is one of the main industries of the country – millions of people depend on it. So in a way it is good, it provides jobs.
The question is how do you achieve a balance where culture is used in tourism without causing the dislike that I developed throughout my experiences. You can’t really regulate the industry in a country like Morocco because it is a third world country. Regulation doesn’t exist. You could mention the problem and ask the community to help tackle the issue, but then again, poverty gets in the way. Perhaps the issue only occurs to me because I have traveled more and so I noticed the little things that others did not.