Is Jemaa el Fna Square in Marrakech Too Touristy?

Sometimes I have problems when people call places too touristy. I’m not always sure what it means  or how they define ‘too touristy’.

A purpose built resort might be too touristy by its very existence, I get that. But what about locations that have been in existence for eons that have become popular tourist destinations? Have they become too touristy by the very fact that tourists like to visit them? (BTW I’m using tourist as a generic term for everyone that isn’t local.)

After visiting Marrakech recently I’ve been reading about other people’s experiences and often the ‘tourist trap’ accusation rears its head . Everybody visiting Marrakech at some point has to visit Jemaa el Fna Square. It is the focal point of the city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and people have been visiting it for centuries to buy and sell goods. So receiving visitors from outside of Marrakech isn’t exactly new to Jemaa el Fna.

It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site partly because ‘It represents a unique concentration of popular Moroccan cultural traditions performed through musical, religious and artistic expressions.’

Basically the musicians, storytellers, poets and dancers were there before the mainstream tourists arrived. I think a lot of people forget that… or don’t know it. There seems to be an assumption by some that nearly everything going on in Jemaa el Fna is put on for the benefit of tourists. It’s a wrong assumption.

Snake charmers, guys with mangy monkeys, henna tattooists et al focus their attention on obvious tourists as that’s where they know the moolah is. But does anyone honestly think the guy with the dentures is flogging them to Willy Eckerslike from Bolton?

You get badgered in the areas where there are most tourists in Jemaa el Fna, especially around the food stalls where the patter is so cheesily bad that it’s funny. Someone shouting ‘Ave a butchers’ to attract your attention because you’re British does have amusement value. But unless you’re some greenhorn, it’s not a problem. Nobody hassled us too much and nobody tried to drag us in anywhere. Similarly nobody tried to put a snake around either of our necks – but then we didn’t  flinch, cower or look in the slightest bit interested when we passed any of the hawkers targeting tourists. The vendors selling fresh orange juice shouted with equal vigour to passing Moroccans as they did to us; it’s their living, it’s what they do.

There were plenty of other tourists like us but I didn’t think that most of what I witnessed was put on purely for the benefit of tourists. By far the majority of the people enjoying the attractions of Jemaa el Fna are not obviously tourists (I say ‘not obviously’ because some may have been visitors from other parts of Morocco and that would make them tourists as well). Head to one of the restaurants with terraces overlooking the square and you’ll find yourself with other tourists; these strategically located terraces are a sanctuary from which to watch the fascinating energy of Jemaa el Fna. But equally, there are small cheap eating places in the square frequented almost totally by locals.

At night, wander twenty metres from the stalls and away from the lights and into the obscurity where Jemaa el Fna’s true personality is revealed.

There, away from the shops and the chaos surrounding the stalls (oddly the snail stalls don’t seem to provoke quite the same excitement), is the Jemaa el Fna that earned the title UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There the darkness is busy with story weavers, actors, poets, musicians, satirical comedians and strange little ramshackle games for children. The three-deep crowds surrounding these artists aren’t tourists; they are the descendants of the people who have been coming to Jemaa el Fna since the 11th century.

There, where it is dark and different and busy and spellbinding it can be slightly disconcerting.

Is Jemaa el Fna too touristy? Ultimately it depends on individual perceptions and experiences, so it is a very subjective point of view.

But as I stood in the murky centre Jemaa el Fna watching a wild-eyed storyteller keep his audience enthralled with words I couldn’t understand; whilst nearby  wrestlers grunted in their efforts to fell their opponents and children chewed on their lips as they concentrated on hooking a bottle of Fanta laid out on a plastic tarpaulin, too touristy is not the phrase that sprang to mind.

Jack is co-editor, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Google+




2 Comments

  1. That was exactly our observations Jack. My first impression was that it was set up to capture the tourist but then realised that most of the activities were attracting a local audience……wish I could have understood the storytellers!

    • Some bizarre stuff going on there. I can’t say it was a place I felt totally relaxed, it’s just too chaotic, but it held a hypnotic attraction… and like you I wish I could have understood more of what was going on.

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