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Lahcen Agoujil: « mass tourism is not a sustainable solution »

Posted on April 30 2020

During our visit in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, we discovered a tourism company different from the others. Far from the mass development, a charming gîte welcomes us in a small isolated valley. The place is ideal for hiking and meeting their inhabitants. Their hospitality contrasts greatly with the crowded areas and attests the impact of tourism development on social relations.

« Terres nomades », which is specialized in ecotourism, also largely finances an association called « Anergui ». This one works for the development of the valley bearing the same name.

Their creator, Lahcen agoujil, tells us about his project.

Lahcen Agoujil Photo

Propos recueillis à Marrakech en octobre 2018 – Publié le April 30 2020

Morocco is a very developed country in terms of tourism, what are its particularities?

In fact Morocco is very varied, we have the sea, we have the mountains and we have the desert. We can travel all year round, that’s the advantage. But what is developing above all is mass tourism. And that’s a big mistake, from my point of view… …because many regions are being developed, built in concrete and denatured…

I think that tourism which is beneficial for Morocco and especially for the remote populations, is solidarity and responsible tourism. Especially in the Atlas Mountains where I think we should limit the number of visits. If we really want to respect the environment, to respect traditions, we can’t arrive at 40 people and meet a family, have a tea, discuss… it’s not possible.

And even for the ecosystem, to be able to walk in a place, you have to limit and protect. We have to make marked paths so that people don’t go out, to avoid disturbing nature, birds, animals, trampling on plants, etc.

I believe that mass tourism is not a sustainable solution. Moreover, it can distort relationships because everything becomes material: when you go to people’s houses for tea, they start asking for money, it’s not a very good relationship anymore, it’s a relationship based on money….

Mass tourism also creates jobs in cities. But in the mountains, it creates desires, especially for young people who want to imitate tourists… They want to go to town, dress like tourists, eat like tourists, but the standard of living doesn’t follow… And in addition to abandoning traditions, abandoning customs, it generates the rural exodus!

On the other hand, mountain tourism, responsible tourism, it allows people to stay in their place and develop their traditions, their crafts, which allows them to be stable on their territory.

What led you to these reflections, what is your personal background?

I come from the Anergui region, my parents were nomads. They stopped nomadism when I was old enough to go to school. My father was traveling a lot, he was a shopkeeper and he realized the usefulness of school. He said « I didn’t go to school, my son has to go to school » and so they settled in the Anergui valley. I went to the primary school in the valley, to the middle school, to the high school and then I went to Marrakech to the university, I am a geologist by profession. So I find nomadism a little bit there, in the rock, in the mountains…

Afterwards I did different jobs because I couldn’t find in my field, some teaching, accounting… I also trained as a guide and worked for big French and European agencies.  Later, I went back to school and I prepared a master’s degree in tourism and sustainable development.

« I had to move towards responsible tourism. […] Because it is tourism that respects human beings as they are »

How did you come up with the idea of going back to school?

Because I found myself in tourism and I said to myself that I had to move towards responsible tourism. It’s a niche of tourism that serves the country, that serves nature. Because it is tourism that respects human beings as they are, that respects nature and that participates in the development of the regions we pass through.

Before resuming your studies, you had already created the association « Anergui », named after the valley you come from...

Absolutely, the very first project was to participate in the children’s schooling. Every year we buy school supplies, there are about 120 students for whom we buy notebooks, schoolbags, pens…

And then we channeled a spring in a village called Aït Boulmane, because people had no drinking water at home.

We also participate in reforestation actions. We collaborate with the waters and forests of the Azilal province. We tried to reforest but we found a problem, because the breeders don’t like it, it limits their territory. So we gave them trees to plant themselves in places where they don’t pass through, and to stimulate them the more we gave them fruit trees, almond trees and apple trees . I also understand them, this is a very remote area, a mountainous area where they need to warm up in the winter because sometimes there is up to 2 meters of snow, there is no heating, there is nothing so they have to cut wood to warm up… If we really want to get there we have to find alternatives but for the moment the association doesn’t have the means.

We also had an ambulance for the whole valley that allowed people to be evacuated in case of an accident. But for the past 4 or 5 years, there has been a dispensary with a doctor and a midwife, so we have developed the mother’s house, a house where semi-nomadic women come a few days before giving birth, they are housed and fed, they give birth in hospital and come back to us 2 to 3 days later, before leaving again.

You also give importance to the protection of the cultural and architectural heritage of the valley...

Yes, because in the valley, there are collective attics. They belonged to several families and they were built at a time when there were tribal wars. They were used as a bank where everyone put their reserves, jewellery, money, wheat, wool, butter… They were placed there, with a guard who was paid according to tradition.

Once the wars were over, everyone built their little houses nearby… That’s why most of the attics are now abandoned, they are built of mud and earth so we tried to restore them. We rebuilt the roof, we rebuilt some rooms… For us it’s important, it’s part of the history of the Amazigh tribes, the Berber tribes of the Atlas Mountains. We also asked for some subsidies from the ministry of culture in order to be able to restore it a hundred percent and then give it a function. That’s what we would like to do to maintain it without distorting it, either as a museum or as a guest house…

So it's a few years after the creation of Anergui that you developed your responsible tourism business?

Exactly, at the beginning when I was a guide, I started talking about our association. People were participating, making donations… Then I decided to set up my own business, I said to myself: « Part of the profits must go to the population, to the association that carries out projects in consultation with the villagers. »

The association is largely financed by our agency and by the commune of Anergui. We have a few subsidies, but 80% of it comes from the agency.

What activities do you provide with your agency « Terres Nomades »?

Terres Nomades, it’s going back to ecotourism. It’s hiking, everything that respects nature. Hiking, walking, horseback riding, bird watching, studying plants… Everything that is well-being.

 

Anergui valley where the ecolodge of Terres Nomades is located
Delphine in the Anergui valley

How can a responsible tourism company be identified? How can it be dissociated from another company in Morocco?

In Morocco, we are known because we have the « Green Key » in relation to our guest house in Anergui. It’s a label concerning the respect of nature, of the environment… And in 2014, we got the trophy for responsible tourism in Morocco

 

What criteria do you need to get this label?

There is a whole file to be filled with criteria to be respected, especially concerning the management of water, linen, food, respect and compensation of employees. How to treat wastewater… at Anergui we have a spring that we tapped directly from the mountain. We have a basin, we collect water for the irrigation of the garden and at the same time for the house.

And for the sewage we have a septic tank. We treat it at the end of the season with bacteria. The water goes back into nature, it seeps out… And the septic tank rests from October until April, that’s when the bacteria do their work.

At the environmental level, we saw that Morocco had banned plastic bags in 2016 but that this is not fully respected... How is waste managed in the country?

When they decided to ban plastic, it almost created problems, here people are used to plastic.

At the time, they thought of putting fines on all traders who used plastic, but it’s difficult… It has to be done through education, through school.

There are some associations, some companies that are trying to recycle in the Medina in Marrakech…

Besides, with Anergui association, we sometimes try to make campaigns of waste collection.

It’s a big problem in Morocco… Anyway concerning our agency, we manage all the garbage. We have garbage bags that we give to the groups, they bring their waste back to Marrakech and in Marrakech we drop them off at the waste disposal center. There are organizations that know how to manage that… We try not to leave any traces in the places we pass through. So we bring everything back! We try not to use plastic already. We have a few cans but we try not to take too much. Anything that is vegetable, we give it to animals, mules, camels. The paper is burnt and the rest of the waste is taken back to Marrakech. 

By the way, you also have an organic garden at the Anergui ecolodge?

Yes, we grow our vegetables, we have our apple trees, we have apricot trees, there are a lot of fruit trees and we also have our vegetables, our chickens. We are almost 90% self-sufficient!

 

Lahcen Agoujil answering Delphine's questions
Lahcen answering Delphine's questions

Your ecolodge in Anergui is also managed by inhabitants of the valley?

It’s run by a family there, so it’s an income, it’s stable for the family. We have 3 employees who are registered, who have their insurance, their social contributions, a monthly salary…

 

Why is it important to employ local people?

As I said earlier, it allows people to stay in the area, it limits the rural exodus. It allows them to develop their activities on the side, because during the period when they don’t have work, they have other activities: sheep and goat breeding, or for example, for the women who work here, weaving, selling carpets and so on.

You also talk about « fair and equitable rates for all, and local guides treated with respect », what do you mean by that?

There are companies that pay the guides or cooks only by tips, if the clients don’t give anything, they don’t get anything … With us they have a fixed salary that we agreed on from the beginning. When they leave with the group, on their return they get their salary.

« If we really want to have a contact, we have to respect the other. »

You also underline the respect of local cultures... for example for clothing.

This is the information that we pass on to our travellers, and that our guides repeat at the start of each trip. They explain to the travellers how to dress, how to respect. Because we are not going to arrive in a village where there are parents, grandparents, young people, with short shorts… It’s not in the traditions, it’s not in the religion. If we really want to have a contact, we have to respect the other. If you want to be able to go towards them, you must not shock them, you must respect them in order to be able to exchange with them.

Tourists need to leave a good impression on the local people to make them accept...

Exactly! To make it last, you have to respect…

And besides, you shouldn’t give out pens, candy, clothes… There are associations, and if there aren’t any you can go to the school, the teacher knows the children or families who can’t afford it.

In 2014, Lahcen Agoujil is awarded the prize for responsible tourism in Morocco. We hope he inspires many travellers and new businesses to follow his example. You can find information about his company or his association via these links:

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