What a Trip to Morocco After a Devastating Earthquake Taught Me About Visiting a Destination in Recovery

Here's what to consider when booking a trip after tragedy, according to travel experts.

<p>3yephotography/Getty Images</p>

3yephotography/Getty Images

The line of horse-drawn carriages was long, and proud: tidy rows of emerald green vehicles, with the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque for a backdrop. But there were few takers for a late afternoon ride, even in the stifling October heat.

My husband and I had just crossed Marrakesh’s famed Jemaa el Fnaa Square, marveling at the brightly colored stalls of fruits, vegetables, and spices. Yet the square, named a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2001, felt nothing like it did when we’d last visited, a decade ago. Back then, we saw snake charmers and artisans and tourists from all over the world embracing the chaos. This time, the noise was now turned down a notch, save for the occasional putter of a motorcycle; the lyrical call to prayer; or an eager vendor, beckoning us to "come have a look! "

That’s because this trip to Marrakesh came just one month after a deadly 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck Morocco, inflicting great loss of life and structural damage, mainly in the villages of the Atlas Mountains. Marrakesh was not unscathed; there were a few casualties and some buildings in the medina collapsed. Walking the winding alleyways with our guide, Mohammed Bousekri, we occasionally saw steel beams, acting as reinforcement. (And visitors today will see the Koutoubia Mosque, which dates to the 12th century, is now clad in scaffolding due to repairs.)

Other parts of the city seemed to be untouched; the airport was the same as ever, and many hotels and resorts were open for business, including the iconic La Mamounia, celebrating its 100th anniversary with a gala weekend featuring local dignitaries and celebrities like Mika and French pianist Sofiane Pamart. Those working at shops and restaurants welcomed us in; I bought a chunky, stone Berber necklace in the medina, chatting casually with the shopkeeper, a friend of Bousekri’s. He remarked how yes, things were a bit slow.

<p>Stefano Barzellotti/Getty Images</p>

Stefano Barzellotti/Getty Images

Business owners, still feeling the impact of COVID closures over the last few years, were trying to cope with this new setback. “The mindset in Marrakesh is we need to band together,” said Nick Minucciani, co-founder of fashion brand Marrakshi Life, which sells chic shirts, jackets, and dresses. His shop and atelier in the industrial quarter, Sidi Ghanem, employs 70, many of whom have family and friends in the more hard-hit areas of the country. “Marrakesh is the heart, and then the veins extend throughout to the mountains.”

Minucciani’s perspective captured the should-we, shouldn’t-we that so many travelers, including me, are feeling these days. Tourism is a huge economic driver across the globe, contributing 7.6% of global GDP in 2022. It’s a critical way that destinations can get back to normal after a crisis, whether that’s a natural disaster, terrorism, or political upheaval. But as a traveler, I also recognize that visiting a place that’s endured a traumatic event can get complicated, quickly. Are you a burden, physically and emotionally, to the local population? Will your dollars truly be welcome? And when exactly is the right time to go?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but experts in the travel industry I’ve spoken with tend to follow a few principles when deciding to go back to a place impacted by tragedy. It’s advice that I often follow myself — and that can make all of us better, more conscientious travelers.

Tap into social media.

In the initial hours and days after the September earthquake, many journalists — not to mention businesses in Marrakesh and the Atlas Mountains — were documenting relief efforts in close to real time. La Mamounia, for example, posted to Instagram on Sept. 11, sharing that the hotel staff and their families were safe. (They also made a call for donations to support relief work.) Then, amazingly, things started to shift: on Sept. 13, there was a post depicting a dining table, saying, “We are ready to serve You!” accompanied by the hashtags #MarrackechKeepsShining #MarrakechNow #StrongMarrakech, among others. On Sept. 16, there was a post depicting female chefs and food displays to promote a weekend brunch, with similar hashtags including #MarrakeshNeedsYou and #StrongMorocco. Jarring? A little, but in the world of Instagram, messages and sentiment turn on a dime. The hotel was clearly telegraphing that it was open, one of the things that gave me confidence to make the journey. If you’re planning a trip, consider following accounts from hotels, restaurants, tourism boards, and local authorities to keep apprised of the situation on the ground.

<p>Yannick Tylle/Getty Images</p>

Yannick Tylle/Getty Images

Call on a travel advisor.

Many travelers are now building long-term relationships with travel specialists, who help them navigate complex trips, tough restaurant reservations, even last-minute concert tickets. Advisors have a global network and can give you real-time advice and assistance. They can also be critical when you’re headed to a recently impacted destination.

“We like to call a host of different people in a destination to get their take,” says Jack Ezon, founder of luxury travel agency Embark Beyond and member of T+L’s Travel Advisory Board. “We will also reach out to a concierge, a specific tour guide, a tour company and sometimes even a restaurant maître d'hôtel. We literally ask them how they are doing, if they are ready, and what the place is actually like.”

Sometimes, travel advisors find themselves in the middle of the crisis. Take the case of Mark Lakin, founder of the Legacy Untold and another member of T+L’s advisory board, who happened to be in Marrakesh when the earthquake hit. “The media reports the news with many ideas in mind, and the tourism economy is almost never the first consideration,” Lakin told me recently. “I felt that the most important thing that I could do was to report the truth from the ground to travelers and the travel industry. After some clean up and three days of national mourning, Marrakesh looked and felt pretty normal,” adds Lakin, who is based in New York City. “Shops, cafes, and restaurants were welcoming travelers with open arms.”

Manage your own expectations.

In my experience, one of the key concerns for travelers is infrastructure: is a destination physically ready for me? “We speak to clients all the time about destinations in recovery,” says Ezon of Embark Beyond. Over the years, he has sent clients to storm-impacted destinations such as Puerto Rico, Los Cabos, and Turks & Caicos — and is now sending people to Maui, which is slowly getting back on its feet after the fire. He shared with me how key it was to set expectations with his travelers. “We speak to clients all the time about destinations in recovery. Most of the time we will suggest visiting, then hold our breath for the inevitable ‘Is it safe”? Isn’t it all destroyed?’ Once you put things into perspective and give them an honest expectation of what things will look like on arrival, clients often book.”

Alan Keohane/Courtesy of La Mamounia
Alan Keohane/Courtesy of La Mamounia

I felt comfortable returning to Marrakesh because La Mamounia had already been open for several weeks. That said, I did arrive at the hotel with a different, more empathetic mindset, eyes a little wider. I was prepared to be more judicious in my requests of the staff, more attuned to my surroundings, more overt in my thanks and gratitude. The restaurants, spa, and on-site boutiques were all welcoming international guests — but the mood at times was hushed and reflective, given the circumstances. My stay proceeded as “normal” as normal could be during a difficult time.

Travel with sensitivity.

Even when a place is open to visitors, it's critical to understand the nuance of what traveling can really mean. Consider the perspective of Carmen Teresa Targa, the San Juan-based vice president of Condado Travel and another advisory board member. She endured Hurricane Maria hitting Puerto Rico and had conflicting feelings in the aftermath. “When someone called me and asked if they should visit the island, of course I said yes,” said Targa, whose travel agency is a family-owned business. “Because their visit was going to bring in revenue. Their visit was going to help my neighbor purchase food, water, medicines, and fuel.”

At the same time, she was dealing with her own crisis. “Did I want them to come? No. I didn’t want to see any pictures on social media of people enjoying themselves on the beach, 20 minutes away from my house, while I prayed to all the generator gods to keep the machine working.”

So what’s a thoughtful traveler to do? “There will always be areas that recuperate faster than others: visit those,” suggests Targa. “Locals will always welcome visitors, especially if it’s a destination that relies on tourism, but you have to be mindful, respectful and show some empathy, especially if the destination has been through a traumatizing event.”

"Locals will always welcome visitors, especially if it’s a destination that relies on tourism, but you have to be mindful, respectful and show some empathy, especially if the destination has been through a traumatizing event."

Carmen Teresa Targa, Condado Travel

I wanted to post about my trip to Marrakesh to show what was possible, what things people could do on the ground with a positive message. I decided to edit a Reel about my sidecar and motorcycle tour La Mamounia organized with Marrakesh Insiders, giving my followers a chance to see for themselves that the streets in and around the medina were clean. One thing I did not get to do: experience the Atlas Mountains, where critical relief efforts were underway, yet some properties, miraculously, were getting on their feet. At Sir Richard Branson’s Kasbah Tamadot, a retreat just one hour outside of Marrakesh, many in the community lost their homes and there was significant damage to the main building. The Berber Tents, however, were unharmed; to enable employment, the hotel kept (and is keeping) those tents open — with 20% of the proceeds going to the Eve Branson Foundation. There were also suggestions regarding supplies (warm clothes, craft kits for kids) and voluntourism activities (trash clean up, harvesting local fruits) for those willing to make the trip. Big picture: reach out to your hotel to see if voluntourism is an option, or at the very least, if there is a list of suggested organizations accepting donations.

As sad as it is to contemplate, it’s likely we’ll see another version of the “Do I stay home or go forth? When is the right time to return?” scenario play out in another destination this year. More than one. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment when things feel normal. But it is clear to me that tourism — if we define it as cross-cultural exchange, a listening tour with the best of intentions — can represent opportunity, hope, and survival, all at once.

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