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Domestic tourism is the only hope for Morocco's ailing artisans

Tourists and locals walk in the 9th century walled medina in the ancient Moroccan city of Fez on 11 April 2019 [FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images]
Tourists and locals walk in the 9th century walled medina in the ancient Moroccan city of Fez on 11 April 2019 [FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images]

In a square in central Fez, the steady beat of hammers on copper has returned – a welcome signal for the ancient Moroccan city's thousands of artisans that trade is slowly picking up after a brutal COVID-induced slump.

Activity is still some way below pre-pandemic levels, and master coppersmith Mohammed Kobbi says the high cost of the metal has hit profit margins.

"[But] conditions have improved compared to last year," he told Reuters as he hurried past Seffarine Square to deliver an order of eight large pans to a local restaurant.

Stretching over 280 hectares, the walled city founded in 789 is home to 40,000 craftsmen including metalwork, brass etching, woodcarving and leatherwork artisans.

A dearth of tourists and domestic visitors during the pandemic forced many to find other work, and some continue to struggle.

But while there are still few foreign tourists wandering the city's narrow maze-like labyrinths, Fez's ancient markets are gradually reviving after domestic travel restrictions were eased and as more Moroccans get vaccinated.

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After two years in the doldrums, travel receipts from domestic and foreign tourists are expected to jump to 60 billion dirhams ($6.7 billion) in 2022, according to the central bank, while Fez welcomed 90 per cent more visitors this summer, most of them Moroccans living abroad, than in 2020.

But with direct flights from Britain, Germany and the Netherlands due to be suspended today over COVID-19 concerns, trouble is back on the horizon.

Local handicrafts campaigner Alhassan Saou says that, while trades linked to construction are pulling through, those depending on tourism are faring far worse.

At the 11th century Chouara tannery, a few men in dye-stained shorts are softening and colouring skins in ancient vats in time-honoured fashion, defying the pungent odour.

"Most of the skilled labourers at the tannery are either unemployed or have switched to other jobs in construction or agriculture," said master tanner Abdelhalim Fezazi, who was forced to quit after 50 years in the profession.

"Activity is still about 80 per cent lower compared with pre-COVID levels… Leather prices have collapsed."

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For Mohammed Mofakir, bewailing the lack of customers while brushing dust off the bags in his leather shop across the city, handicrafts are more than just a source of employment.

"They are part of our history that we would like to preserve and pass on to the next generation," he said.

But back in old Fez, many among the younger generation are opting for white collar jobs, leaving those artisans still in business struggling to find skilled labour.

Sitting behind his old loom in a newly restored artisans' complex, Azami Idrissi, 73, reminisces about the good old days before COVID-19 – and prior to that commercial factories – intruded.

"We produce but no one buys. Weaving has become a job for old people," he said.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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