There is something apocalyptic about a sandstorm at sunset, all that hot swirling air suffused with fiery light. The 70m minaret of the Koutoubia mosque – by some distance the most imposing landmark on the Marrakech skyline – which stood 15 minutes’ walk across the souk from the riad I was staying in, had disappeared into the red smog. The wind felt like a hairdryer. Even in the evening the temperature was touching 40°, and every surface – my hands, my eyelashes – was soon coated in a kind of Martian dust. (In conditions like this, you can see it makes sense to be veiled.) The staff regarded it as less of an adventure; they knew the scale of the clean-up operation that lay ahead.
To clean a fountain or a pool that’s been hit by a sandstorm there is no option but to drain it, which is one thing in a riad with a 7m fountain-fed bassin in its principal patio, quite another for a place like Palais Namaskar (illustrated above and below), where I’d stayed earlier in the week. Here a third of the 12-acre grounds are underwater, if you combine the area of all 28 swimming pools (27 of them private), ponds and the great reflective sheet of cooling water that bisects the property, dividing the villas and suites from the very grandest “palace” accommodation.
There’s no denying that all this water makes Palais Namaskar 20 minutes by car from the Medina in the date grove-turned-suburb known as the Palmeraie, a heavenly place to be, offering everything you’d expect from the newest hotel in the Oetker Collection, owner of the peerless Hotel du Cap Eden-Roc in Antibes and Le Bristol in Paris. Although it opened only in April, its gardens are already lush, scented with jasmine and lit at dusk with candles in lanterns and log fires. Its rooms – contemporary in style, the work of Imaad Rahmouni, a French Algerian protégé of Philippe Starck with the same penchant for Murano chandeliers and giant table lamps – are sublimely comfortable (especially the long low linear pool villas, with their tall-walled gardens and heated and unheated swimming pools). Though the carving on the miles of colonnaded walkways recalls the scalloped arches of the Koutoubia mosque, there’s little that is typically Moroccan about it. Order a tagine, and it’s served under a silver cloche. And I couldn’t help feeling that a hotel this reliant on water had no place in the desert.
Not that it’s alone out here. From the rooftop Panoramic Bar at Namaskar, you can see the monumental 161-room Taj Palace, run by Tata-owned Mumbai-headquartered Taj Hotels and due to open in November. In terms of style, it’s a melting pot of Mughal, Moroccan and miscellaneous Asian influences, conceived by the American painter turned architect, Stuart Church, whom the hallucinatory writer William Burroughs judged “the last of the Orientalists”. (Too bad its vast white dome, visible from miles around, is reminiscent more of the British nuclear power station Sizewell B than the chhatris of Udaipur.) Indeed its general manager, Yves Wencker, calls it “a little piece of India” geographically closer to Europe than the fabled Taj palaces of Mumbai and Jodhpur, which inspire it, but with Indian chefs in its restaurant and Indian ayurvedic doctors in its spa.
“Marrakech is a very competitive market,” he says. “And it would be presumptuous to say that we can go where no one else has gone. But we are trying to position ourselves differently, and I think our USP will be our Indian provenance and that will make us attractive to Indian clientele, especially honeymooners. Marrakech is at its best during the Indian wedding season. And Indian guests tend to like to stay with familiar brands that feel connected with their homeland.”
Ten minutes drive towards the city brings you to the Mosaic Palais Aziza, yet another hotel primed to open this summer, this time the property of the Saudi Prince Bandar, whose own immense palace stands opposite. With just 28 mostly attractive (bar its collection of crude cod-Orientalist and even cruder contemporary paintings), quintessentially Moroccan rooms – all zelij tiles, polished tadelakt plasterwork, the brightly painted wood they call zouac, it has the air of a boutique, but the ambitions (and rates) of somewhere much grander.
There’s intense activity south of the Medina too. May saw the opening of the Selman, just beyond the airport, which has the most opulent, most technologically advanced spa in the city, an 80m swimming pool, a water garden redolent of the Generalife in Granada, as well as a stable of Arabian thoroughbreds to admire rather than ride.
The hotel, its interiors and indeed its palatial stables are the work of Jacques Garcia, who masterminded the three-year renovation of La Mamounia, prior to its 2009 reinvention, and is a connoisseur of traditional Moroccan crafts and heritage, for the tiles, marquetry, stained glass, lacy metalwork and infinitely delicate moucharabieh fretwork are beautiful. He is also the designer behind the forthcoming Delano, the first Moroccan outpost of the New York-based Morgans Group (operator of the Delano on Miami’s South Beach), which opens in September in the Hivernage business district. Morgans, meanwhile, has also announced that next year it will open a Mondrian (like the hotels of that name in Miami, Los Angles and New York) south of the centre near the Agdal Gardens.
Perhaps this will presage an influx of visitors from North America, but that strategy hasn’t worked for Four Seasons, which opened in Marrakech last year. Astonishingly for a brand held never to cut its rates, it’s been offering heftily discounted rooms via the bargain booking website hotels.com.
With 700-plus hotels and counting, one might therefore assume that Marrakech and its environs had reached saturation already. (In a letter to Cyril Connolly, George Orwell fretted about the extent to which Morocco had been “utterly debauched by the tourist racket” as long ago as 1938.) Yet this year alone, six five-star hotels – with a total of almost 500 rooms, suites and villas – will have been added to the total inventory in Marrakech, and the rate of expansion shows no sign of slowing, especially in the still undeveloped area around the airport. Also on the cards are a Moroccan edition of Mauritius’s fabled Royal Palm; the Jawhar, by the Menara Gardens, owned by Monaco’s Société des Bains de Mer; an 80-room resort from Italy’s Baglioni Hotels; a Park Hyatt; and, in 2014, a 54-room Mandarin Oriental.
Whether there will be sufficient guests to fill them, however, remains a moot point. “How they can possibly hope to fill all those beds in this market is a complete mystery,” says Jonathan Wix, owner of Riad Farnatchi, one of 400 or so riad hotels in the Medina. “We’ve had three very difficult years, though we’re weathering it a lot better than some places. We haven’t lost money and we don’t need a return on a capital investment; we simply have to make a trading profit.” Even so, he’s been offering discounts of 40 per cent off its 3,800 dirham/£300-a-night rates.
There’s no great optimism about the future either. The next “two or three years will be challenging,” Didier Picquot, directeur général of La Mamounia, told me over a drink in the hotel’s elegant Bar Italien, adding that he hoped the developers of all the new hotels were well resourced financially because the market couldn’t possibly absorb so many new rooms.
For even his fabled hotel has not been full. In 1952, Paul Bowles described it as “just a little harder to get into than heaven”, but even with its reputation, its heritage, its fabulously exotic gardens and tranquil, nigh-perfect location, five minutes’ walk from the vibrant Jemaa el Fna (the city’s main square), it operated at an average capacity of 57 per cent last year.
And there are few signs for optimism. Overall the city saw a 10 per cent fall in visitor numbers in the first quarter of 2012 – traditionally the peak winter season – compared with 2011, which itself saw a fall of nine per cent, attributable, believes the country’s tourism minister, Lahcen Haddad, to the Arab Spring; the bombing of the Argana Café, which killed 17, in April 2011; and the recession.
Traditionally, the French have constituted up to half of all visitors to the kingdom, but says Picquot, “A lot of them have stopped coming,” largely thanks, he thinks, to the economic crisis in the Eurozone and to the French elections: “Traditionally people travel less during this kind of period.” Though also perhaps because Air France still has no direct flight from Paris to Marrakech, and if you’re paying £700 a night for a modestly proportioned Park Suite (52 sq m) at La Mamounia, you’re probably not the type to fly Ryanair or easyJet (which do). No wonder Palais Namaskar has invested in its own Dassault Falcon 900LX.
Since British Airways’ takeover of BMI, there is anxiety among the city’s hoteliers that the BMI flight from Heathrow may go, leaving only the BA flight from Gatwick, which will impact on guests transiting through London – the route most Americans – historically another large constituency – opt for.
Consequently, then, they are setting their sights on markets beyond the EU. Arrivals from Arab counties rose by 14 per cent in 2011. Four per cent of guests at La Mamounia came from Brazil (thanks to a new direct flight from Lisbon). And the Selman has hired a personable Russian, Yulia Veresova, to manage guest relations.
Certainly at Riad Farnatchi (illustrated above), where I spent three idyllic days on a recent holiday, there was a cosmopolitan mix of guests staying in its nine rooms, from Saudi Arabia, the US, German and Japan. Of course the riad experience doesn’t fairly compare with a stay at one of the new influx of luxury resorts. There’s no formal French or Italian restaurant guided by a starry chef, as there is at the Royal Mansour (Yannick Alléno), La Mamounia (Jean Pierre Vigato), the Delano (Michel Rostang), the Mosaic Palais (Daniele Turco, formerly of Venice’s Gritti Palace) et al. Rather, at Farnatchi, a Berber cook will prepare whatever you like if you put in a request in the morning. (The aromatic tagine of chicken, green olives and preserved lemons and date ice cream she prepared for us could not have been lovelier.) Instead of a whole spaful of therapists, there’s just one accomplished masseur and a hammam. But the exquisite 17th-century carved stucco here is original, not repro. There are two patios, as well as a roof garden and our own secluded balcony, to sit out in. And the staff could not have been more enchanting, on hand to bring us mint tea – hot or iced – whenever we felt like it, as well as plates of delicious canapés at six. I loved Palais Namaskar because it’s polished and glamorous, and staying is utter indulgence. But I loved Farnatchi more because it feels like le vrai Maroc. And I didn’t sense it was a threat to the water table.