Our first mistake was to turn into the wrong alley.
It was our first night in Morocco, Marrakesh, and we were trying to find our way back to our riad accommodation. With the winding alleyways that aren’t always connected, it’s easy for even the most seasoned of travellers to get lost in Moroccan cities.
After a while, an unusually large group of toddlers on bicycles tailed us at a distance, but we continued walking on confidently, pretending like we knew where we were going.
Alas, a dead end.
That was when the children started shouting in Arabic, calling out that they’ve detected the lost tourists. We turned around to see two or three people running down the narrow alley towards the three of us.
But here’s the twist — no weapons were drawn, and no attempt was made to even touch us. They just “wanted to help” us find our way.
For the unsuspecting traveller, you have every right to be scared.
Thankfully, we did our research prior and knew very well that this was a very common scam — fake “tour guides” who bring you to your desired destination, only to ask for an exorbitant tip at the end.
Calmly, we called up our riad host who gave us the directions and helped us shoo them away at the entrance.
A simple Internet search would yield you tons of results that talk about this scam, which could easily to the conclusions that Morocco is unsafe.
Bahia Palace in Marrakesh.
The Sahara Desert.
Why is Morocco seen as unsafe?
Photo credit: Wanderingon.com
While researching any destination, hit the “News” tab on google and it’s likely to make you think twice about travelling anywhere. Similarly with Morocco, there’s the impression of terrorism and that women travellers are at high risk.
Statistically speaking, Morocco has a very low likelihood of getting hit by terrorism.
According to the latest Global Terrorism Index, Morocco ranks 92nd out of 163 countries — better than Canada, Japan and Sweden.
Unfortunately, a few bad apples do spoil the bunch. Last year, Morocco experienced its first terrorist attack since 2015, where two tourists were killed by ISIS-inspired extremists as a pledge of allegiance (however, ISIS never actually acknowledged their pledge). The three culprits have since been arrested and sentenced to death.
The only other high profile incident was in 2011, when suicide bombers at a tourist hotspot in Marrakesh killed 15. And the last major attack before that was in 2003.
This all sounds scary, but you can see how these isolated incidents are few and far between, and chances are you haven’t even heard of these prior to reading this article.
I also believe that this impression of Morocco stems from a general fear of the unknown, especially for those who only understand Morocco as a country in Africa. The Libyan Crisis and Syrian Civil War occupy media headlines most of the time, causing our minds to naturally form a cognitive bias (called the mean world syndrome) that broadly generalises instability across Africa. There may also be similar schools of thought for those who only understand Morocco as a predominantly Muslim country. Talk about a double whammy!
Safety of female travellers
Touters and cat-callers are the two predominant gripes travellers have about Morocco. And the truth is, Moroccans hustle hard on the street, and I can say that the touting is definitely more intense than what you’d experience around Southeast Asia.
I can’t discount the fact that it can be very annoying and that it is a genuine concern (they actually got handsy with Hendric once when we were just looking for a place to eat!), but it’s actually nothing dangerous per se — you just need really thick skin and know how to say no firmly to get them to stop bothering you (and if all else fails, walking away does the trick).
Cat-calling is also a legit concern, especially if you’re a female solo traveller. Morocco was ranked the 2nd most dangerous country in the world for female travellers in 2017! Morocco is a very conservative country where gender roles are strictly defined, so females are naturally viewed and treated differently than in other cultures.
Is it really unsafe for travellers, then?
You are very, very unlikely to suffer any physical harm in Morocco. If it helps, guns as well as sharp weapons like knives are illegal to carry in public. During our two-week stay across five cities, we never had a moment where we felt like we were in grave danger.
Morocco received almost 13 million tourists in 2019, and is one of the most visited countries in Africa. I hope this figure gives a rough idea about how rare terror attacks or public assaults towards travellers are, considering there’s only been three major incidents in the last 17 years!
Even then, the Moroccan government has ramped up security measures, especially for tourists. Special police forces have been set up in major cities specifically for tourists (called Brigade Touristique) who loiter undercover to keep an eye out.
For female travellers, it’s extremely rare for cat-calling to advance to anything physical, especially when you’re in crowded cities like Marrakesh or Rabat with people around. Moroccans in my experience have been really friendly and hospitable, and because they have a good understanding of how much tourism benefits their country, they make sure that tourists around them don’t come in physical harm’s way.
However, their friendliness is also a double-edged sword as the dangers to travellers in Morocco lie in petty crime like scams and pickpockets, which are rampant.
Common scams and tips to stay safe in Morocco
1) Friendly people showing you the way to your destination
As shared at the start of this post, this is extremely common. Locals are quick to suss out who the tourists are and assume that they’re lost. Never tell them where you’re going, because they will automatically show you the way and take on the role of a “tour guide” you didn’t ask for. Once you arrive at where you need to be, they’ll then start aggressively asking for an inflated tip.
Morocco cities tend to be full of narrow alleys like this.
Therefore, it’s paramount that you have your entire route planned and memorised so you won’t fumble with your phone and what not. It’s also useful to firmly respond to them with “laa shukran”, which means “no thanks” in Arabic.
Unfortunately, it may also help that you just try not to make eye contact with lone strangers loitering around the alleys, and/or sport a resting bitch face. It’s hard to be mean like that, but it’s sometimes necessary!
2) Fake goods sold at souks (markets)
Shopping around Morocco’s many souks is a real treat — ceramic plates with vibrant prints, authentic tagine pots, Argan oil, carpets and what have you. But naturally, there will be vendors that charge exorbitant prices to unsuspecting tourists, and try to spin some exotic tale about where the souvenirs came from or how “vintage” they are.
The first thing to note is that haggling is common and almost expected a la Southeast Asian markets like in Thailand or Vietnam, so always negotiate to a price you’re comfortable with. Also, keep a rational mind about how much you think an item would be without listening to their marketing spiel — souvenirs are souvenirs, lah! If need be, check with your hotel, hostel or riad host on what reasonable prices are.
An additional tip for Argan oil — while we didn’t shop for any during our trip, our research tells us you’re least likely to get scammed with diluted bottles if you buy them in regions around Essaouira or Agadir. Avoid buying them in major touristy cities like Marrakesh and Fes!
3) Women offering henna services
This is especially common in Marrakesh’s Jemaa el-Fnaa, its most touristy spot. Henna artists stationed at the open square are infamous for using a “black” henna, which is inauthentic and contains paraphenylenediamine, a potentially dangerous and corrosive substance that you may be unknowingly allergic to (it scars!). Henna paste usually takes on a dark greenish hue, and never black.
Henna artists are also known to find ways of charging you more, either by conveniently “forgetting” what was the initially agreed-upon price and asking for more, “accidentally” drawing a bigger henna up your arm to make it more expensive, or even spilling some of the ink onto your arm when you’re walking around and not aware of your surroundings, saying that they’ll fix it for you/give you a henna tattoo for free. No!
The best way to skirt around this is to ask your accommodation host or staff on the best places to get them. Avoid streetside ones at all cost!
4) Taking pictures of street performances (e.g. live animal shows)
This is another tip that’ll be most useful in Marrakesh’s Jemaa el-Fnaa. It’s so easy to whip out your phone to snap pictures for the gram these days, but be careful not to get caught surreptitiously taking pics of people walking around or performing with snakes and monkeys!
Every street performer usually has a few other people standing around, watching to see who’s taking photos. Once they see you snapping one, they’ll immediately head towards you and aggressively ask for an unreasonable amount of money (as high as 10€). Our advice: Ignore their demands and pay what you think is fair, if you so wish to get a pic.
The same goes for street performers that’ll encourage you to take a photo with their snake (which they may sometimes place on you without consent). The best tip for this, and for any other matter in life, honestly: Don’t let yourself be forced to do something you’re not comfortable with, or have no intention of doing! Just say “laa shukran” and move on.
This all sounds very intimidating, but I admittedly acknowledge that you will require a thick skin to firmly tell people “no” repeatedly. Once again, these are people who aggressively hustle for a living, so don’t see this as a physical threat because it never escalates into an assault. It’s just a Tuesday!
5) Tannery “tour guides”
Chouara Tannery in Fes.
The leather tanneries of Morocco are a must-see, and you can smell them before you can find them! The most touristy ones are in Fes and Marrakesh, and getting to any one of them can be tricky because people will be all over the streets trying to get you to go to their terrace for a view of it.
The general rule of thumb is to ignore people who claim to know of an “alternative entrance” where you can pay a cheaper entrance fee — this is usually a tourist trap where you’ll instead be pressured into other “augmented” services like an “exclusive tour” you didn’t ask but will have to tip for, or making a purchase at a nearby shop.
For us, we did our research on which tannery we wanted to visit and decided on the Chouara Tannery. Unfortunately it’s hard to pinpoint exactly which terrace we ended up deciding upon, but the group consensus was to approach the ones who weren’t so hard-sell. As long as you’re up at a height, the view is generally good; the intensifying putrid smell of the tanning liquids is also an indicator of how close you’re getting to the area.
Be prepared to haggle down your entrance fee though. As a reference, we paid a total of 10dh (~S$1.40) per pax.
6) Taxi fare scams
Taxi scams (or tourist fare “premiums”) are common so don’t be surprised if majority of the taxi drivers you meet insist on charging a flat fare. As tourists, we tried our best to negotiate to be charged by the meter to lacklustre results. You’re more likely to get the meter in cities like Casablanca and Rabat, though — use the French word for it, compteur (koh-m-twah).
Do note there are two types of taxis — petite taxis which usually sit about three, and grand taxis which are bigger. Petite taxis usually only navigate within medina city boundaries.
Taxis do congregate at hotspots like outside bus terminals and train stations. In those cases, prices could be cheaper by virtue of competition among the drivers themselves, but don’t count on it. The general consensus is that a petite taxi ride shouldn’t exceed US$5, or 35dh. Our most expensive ride was about 50dh (~S$7.20), though it tends to average between 20dh and 30dh.
For us, we weren’t concerned about haggling to the lowest possible price because firstly, we didn’t sit in that many taxis to really put a dent on our budget. Secondly, we’re fortunate in that taxi rides already cost fairly cheap for us. These people are still earning a living after all. As long as we’re not majorly ripped off, we prefer focusing on paying a price we’re most comfortable with.
Tips for solo travellers and backpackers
There may be plenty of precautions to take when visiting Morocco, but you’ll find that there are also many people with nothing but great things to say about the country! As long as you stay street smart and alert, I have no doubt that your trip to Morocco will go without a hitch, solo or not.
For solo travellers, do plenty of research and map your routes exactly to avoid looking lost and become an easy target for scams. Especially avoid eye contact with people you deem dodgy. It also helps to learn a little Arabic and French, even if it’s just simple greetings!
If you’re looking to save money, sharing taxis for transportation seems common among backpackers. Attractions in every city are generally very close by, so you cross paths with fellow travellers way more often than you’d think. We also recommend taking CTM buses and ONCF trains to travel between cities — you can read more about the routes we took in our 11-Day Morocco Itinerary.
If you’re female, get ready to face some cat-calling but just ignore them and walk away. Covering up with long pants and a shawl when you’re out might help reduce this — don’t see it as an infringement of your freedom, but that everyone should be dressed modestly in a Muslim country regardless of gender.
As with many other places, avoid going out at night, and only frequent places that have good reviews left by other travellers. This applies not just to attractions, but also restaurants and accommodations (TripAdvisor is a good resource)! Riads and hostels are aplenty in Morocco, and there’s no shortage of good ones. And this goes without saying — don’t do drugs!
So… should I visit Morocco?
Chefchaouen — the city that’s awash in blue!
Yes, yes, yes! I cannot recommend Morocco enough because our last trip hopping across five Moroccan cities was nothing short of amazing. It’s the perfect introduction to Africa, and you can even check camping in the Sahara desert off your bucket list!
I didn’t know much about Morocco prior to getting there, and if you followed our Destination: Unknown series in 2018, you’d know that I only found out I was headed there literal hours before the flight. But after spending two weeks there, I realised that Morocco doesn’t really come to people’s minds simply because they’ve yet to discover this magnificent hidden gem!
That said, given the prevalence of scams and overall complexity in terms of navigation, I recommend visiting Morocco only if you’re a moderately seasoned traveller. This is not a destination you want to spend too much time figuring things out! Adaptability, flexibility and street smarts are must-haves, along with an adventurous spirit.
How’s this for a bucket list experience?
So if you know what you’re in for, just pack in a bit of street awareness and common sense, and I can guarantee that you’ll appreciate Morocco’s beauty. The Sahara Desert experience is easily one of my favourite moments till today, and you’ll definitely have a blast eating amazing tagines, sipping Moroccan tea err’day and admiring the amazing moorish architecture.
Did you find this guide helpful? Share your experiences and other tips with us in the comments!