Sustainable tourism in Morocco’s High Atlas mountains brings newfound tourism to the local Berber people
As the first rays of the sun warm the snow-capped peak of Jebel Toubkal, a muezzin's early morning call to prayer echoes off the steep valley walls far below. Ribbons of wood smoke curl lazily upward through the chilly air as the Moroccan village of Imlil comes to life.
Witnessed from the elevated, carpet-covered roof of the Kasbah du Toubkal hotel, with a glass of steaming sweet mint tea in hand, this has to be one of the African continent's most majestic dawn views.
To most people, Morocco brings to mind images of bazaars, beaches and billowing Saharan dunes. But, as a growing number of visitors are now discovering, many of this North African kingdom's greatest treasures lie hidden in its mountains.
A 2,500-kilometre crescent-shaped ridge dividing the sun-baked African hinterland from the Mediterranean, the Atlas range marches its way across Morocco and into Algeria and Tunisia. The highest peaks, crowned by the 4,167-metre Jebel Toubkal, are within easy reach of Moroccan cities such as Marrakech, Casablanca and Agadir.
“Today, the High Atlas offer visitors a very different holiday experience,” says Mike McHugo, the English co-owner of the Kasbah du Toubkal (kasbahdutoubkal.com). “As a mighty barrier between the plains of northern Morocco and the Sahara, the valleys here are a stronghold of the Berber, the indigenous people of northern Africa. With their deeply traditional way of life, some of the villages here appear locked in time. It's not surprising that the area's authentic culture and awe-inspiring scenery are an increasingly popular draw.”
The Berber name for the High Atlas Mountains is Idraren Draren, or ‘mountains of mountains’ – particularly apt as most of Morocco's 4,000-metre peaks are found here. The Berbers who inhabit this wild land rely mostly on subsistence-level farming, and shepherds tending their flocks of sheep and goats are a regular sight. Houses are mostly constructed from mud and stone, with villages perched precariously on steep hillsides or between soaring peaks.
While they are widely known as Berber by outsiders, many people here prefer to call themselves Imazighen, meaning ‘free people’.
Although Tamazight, the Berber language, was recognised as an official language of Morocco in 2011, many Berber children have long dropped out of school because they are taught in Arabic. In the High Atlas, where the nearest school is often many kilometres away, many Berber parents have no money to pay for their children's daily lodging.
“The Berbers continue to encounter problems with the Moroccan schooling system,” explains McHugo. “For a number of reasons – social, financial and linguistic – very few children, especially girls, from High Atlas communities get the opportunity to continue their education after primary school. This has led to a female illiteracy rate of over 80 percent in some places.”
Clinging to a rocky outcrop high above the village of Imlil, the Kasbah du Toubkal is like an imposing feudal fortress. Opened by Mike McHugo and his brother Chris as a luxury hotel in 1995, it now boasts a reputation as one of Morocco’s most authentic and spectacularly located mountain retreats. But it is not just this unique resort's picture postcard setting and long list of luxurious amenities that keep guests returning year after year.
Thanks to a range of ongoing environmental and community projects, the Kasbah has become the beating heart of Imlil.
Local Berbers run the hotel, while a five percent levy on guests’ bills goes into a charitable fund. So far the McHugos have used the money to buy an ambulance, construct a free public bathhouse, start a waste recycling scheme and invest in local education projects.
It is in the field of education that the Kasbah du Toubkal is making the biggest difference.
Thanks to the work of Moroccan charity Education for All (EFA), set up by McHugo and a group of friends, an ever-growing number of Berber girls in the High Atlas now have access to a life-changing secondary school education.
Since the Dar Asni Secondary School for Girls was opened by EFA in 2007, three more schools in the Imlil area have been opened. Sleeping in purpose-built dormitories and returning to see their families on weekends, the teenage Berber girls attending these schools can enjoy classes in Arabic, English, maths and other subjects. There are no fees.
“Three more Berber girls from our houses are university-bound this year, joining the five already there,” explains EFA's communications officer Sonia Omar. “We are so proud of them. The impact of this is very profound, not only because it will inspire other girls from the High Atlas, but also because it means that soon these young women's voices will be heard by Moroccan society, bringing more balance and diversity.”
Only a 90-minutes drive from Marrakech, Imlil is the gateway to the Toubkal National Park, renowned for superb hiking, biking, skiing and other outdoor pursuits. It is also home to some of Morocco’s rarest wildlife, such as the Barbary sheep, Barbary leopard and Barbary macaque.
Situated a stone's throw from the Kasbah du Toubkal is another high-end property perfectly placed for those wishing to experience the Toubkal National Park. And like the Kasbah du Toubkal, Kasbah Tamadot (kasbahtamadot.virgin.com) – a luxury property owned by British tycoon Sir Richard Branson – is also doing its bit to improve Berber livelihoods.
The resort, under the auspices of Sir Richard's mother, has imported a herd of cashmere goats from England. Berber girls use the goat wool to produce embroidery and knitwear that is then sold for them at Tamadot and other Branson-owned properties. “The Berbers are a proud people,” says Eve Branson.
“We want to teach the girls lifelong skills that remove the need to ask for charity in the future.”
The growth in the number of High Atlas holidaymakers is also leading to a rise in philanthropic entrepreneurship amongst the Berber themselves. Brahim Barkouche, a Berber who opened a luxury guesthouse in Ouirgane in 2005, believes sustainable tourism is all about promoting cultural exchange and environmental protection, while allowing villagers to work locally and keep their dignity.
“Of course everybody wants higher living standards,” says Barkouche. “The trick is to achieve this in harmony with the local culture and surroundings.”
Barkouche and the tourists he offers hospitality to now support a range of local projects. “We’ve saved the only water mill and olive press left in Ouirgane by paying the owner some money every time our guests visit,” explains the personable Berber. “We also have tree-planting schemes, sell locally made produce and handicrafts, employ local muleteers and are helping to improve the Ouirgane primary school.”
Today, well-managed sustainable tourism is bringing the Berber people of the High Atlas a new kind of freedom. “These people didn't need or want charity,” says McHugo. “All they needed was knowledge and the opportunity to help themselves. As visitors invariably agree, the High Atlas are richer for their presence.”