Morocco's Marrakesh 'suffocates' without tourists

A woman looks on as she crosses the Jemaa el-Fna square in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh which is currently empty of its usual crowds due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

AFP/Fadel Senna

MARRAKECH - Snake charmers, storytellers and crowds of tourists; the legendary Jamaa El Fna square of Morocco's Marrakesh is almost as famous for the number of visitors as its colourful performers.

But with tough government restrictions imposed to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, the tourism industry on which Marrakesh depends screeched to a halt.

Now the 11th century UNESCO World Heritage site is almost empty, and the city is facing an unprecedented crisis.

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Usually teeming with people, the square lies forlorn and empty of the musicians, souvenir sellers and fortune tellers who ordinarily ply their trade.

Morocco declared a state of health emergency in mid-March and shut its borders to stop coronavirus from spreading.

The North African nation of 35 million inhabitants has recorded over 1,500 deaths from coronavirus and more than 86,600 confirmed cases.

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After the initial pandemic restrictions were eased, traders and tourist operators hoped domestic tourism might mitigate their losses.

But then the surprise announcement of new restrictions, including the closure of Marrakesh and seven other cities, shattered hopes of a revival.

Last year, the city attracted three of the 13 million tourists who came to the country.

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On social media, there are calls to "save" the city, with many using the hashtag "Marrakesh suffocates".

Like all governments, the authorities have to weigh lockdown measures against the need to keep the economy alive.

Official figures predict the pandemic could push the country into its worst recession since 1996, with a contraction of more than five percent of its GDP.

Tourist operators cling on to a glimmer of hope, with the government allowing travellers not needing a visa to fly to Morocco -- upon the presentation of a hotel reservation and a negative coronavirus test.