Live out your travel dreams by meandering through Marrakesh

The city is a treasure trove of photo opportunities. (Shutterstock)
Updated 23 January 2018
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Live out your travel dreams by meandering through Marrakesh

MARRAKESH: There are some cities in the world that are almost impossible not to love. Think of Rio de Janeiro with its laid-back beach vibe and picture-perfect cliffs that plunge into the sea, or Tokyo, where futuristic technology, fresh seafood and fascinating history come together to ensure you always want to stay longer. Both are immediately enchanting. Marrakesh is not. But, with time, you’ll discover its attractions.
The majority of Morocco’s fourth-largest city is constructed from red sandstone, gaining it the sobriquet The Ochre City. It is naturally beautiful from afar, but up close, the dirt and disorganization, coupled with dangerous, traffic-heavy roads and street-hawkers as persistent as the flies that accompany your every meal, make it a hard place to drop your guard.
It is a city that can test your patience: hot, humid, dusty and with a constant din; a city where, when it comes to buying things — be it Berber rugs, Aladdin-style lamps or tanned leather backpacks — the word ‘no’ means ‘maybe’ and ‘maybe’ is all the indication vendors need to start bagging up whatever it is you dared sneak a glimpse at.
It is certainly not a destination for everyone, but those visitors willing to leave their first-world problems at the airport, spare some coins for the snot-nosed street urchins asking for help to buy a football, and embrace the mysticism that Marrakesh is most famed for, will be richly rewarded.
The nine-meter tall ochre wall that surrounds the labyrinthine medina consists of some of the city’s most impressive relics, including towering battlements and magnificent fortress-style doors. Inside, lush green gardens and a bustling Kasbah complement a collection of some of the finest Islamic architecture in the world, including the Ali Ben Youssef Medersa and the iconic Koutoubiya Mosque, which dates back to the 12th Century.
It is in the shadow of the mosque’s 77-meter minaret where the heartbeat of Marrakesh can be found: The sprawling Jamaa el-Fna.
To explore Morocco’s most famous open-air market is like stepping back in time — only the chained-up monkeys wear diapers these days and the tooth-pullers try to charge €10 for the privilege of taking a photo. The droves of tourists are diluted by the sheer mass of locals, creating an authentic scene largely unchanged since the plaza swapped public executions for more palatable forms of entertainment a few centuries ago.
By daytime, a sensory explosion reveals Moroccans huddled around Berber storytellers while serpents rise ominously from the dark depths of woven baskets to the tune of a charmer’s flute; soothsayers and slapstick shows noisily vie for your attention as henna artists reach for your arms and tassel-hatted water sellers clang their bells.
An evening stroll allows you to try your hand at a game involving a fishing rod, a doughnut and a crop circle of Coca-Cola bottles, but a tougher challenge lies amid the numerous pop-up restaurants. If you can pass through without succumbing to offers of steaming hot tagine or plentiful grilled meats you are either seriously strong-willed or have no sense of smell. Feeling especially brave? Try the street food on the northern edge of the square: boiled sheep’s head or spice-infused snail soup, perhaps?
On the opposite edge of the plaza sits the Souk El Bahja. Spread over three floors — the name translates literally as “The Up and Down Market” — here you will find everything from slippers to fossils, spices to argan oil. Haggle hard, but be aware that regardless of the price you settle on you can get your purchase for a quarter of the price outside the walled city.
While secluded riads (large houses built around central courtyards) provide a potential evening retreat and a steamy hammam can help you de-stress, the best way to escape from the mayhem of Marrakesh is to head for the Atlas Mountains.
A couple of hours outside of the city, the Berber commune of Setti-Fatma has stunning panoramic views and seven picturesque waterfalls. A shallow river runs through the middle of the town, prompting a series of Indiana Jones-style wooden bridges, while a few restaurants have set up tables in the middle of the water. Whether it is for novelty value or to keep the street cats away from your khobz, with a piping hot cup of mint tea in your hand and cold water running through your toes, it is here where you will likely, finally, be able to relax — at least until you remember you need to return your car to Marrakesh.


On Thai island’s Phuket, hotel guests check out of plastic waste

Updated 17 August 2018
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On Thai island’s Phuket, hotel guests check out of plastic waste

  • Hotel employees and local school children take part in regular beach clean-ups
  • Hotels are turning their attention to single-use plastics amid growing public awareness about damage to oceans

KUALA LUMPUR: For the millions of sun seekers who head to Thailand’s resort island of Phuket each year in search of stunning beaches and clear waters, cutting down on waste may not be a top priority.
But the island’s hotel association is hoping to change that with a series of initiatives aimed at reducing the use of plastic, tackling the garbage that washes up on its shores, and educating staff, local communities and tourists alike.
“Hotels unchecked are huge consumers and users of single-use plastics,” said Anthony Lark, president of the Phuket Hotels Association and managing director of the Trisara resort.
“Every resort in Southeast Asia has a plastic problem. Until we all make a change, it’s going to get worse and worse,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Established in 2016 and with about 70 members — including all Phuket’s five-star hotels — the association has put tackling environmental issues high on its to-do list.
Last year the group surveyed members’ plastics use and then began looking at ways to shrink their plastics footprint.
As part of this, three months ago the association’s hotels committed to phase out, or put plans in place to stop using plastic water bottles and plastic drinking straws by 2019.
About five years ago, Lark’s own resort with about 40 villas used to dump into landfill about 250,000 plastic water bottles annually. It has now switched to reusable glass bottles.
The hotel association also teamed up with the documentary makers of “A Plastic Ocean,” and now show an edited version with Thai subtitles for staff training.
Meanwhile hotel employees and local school children take part in regular beach clean-ups.
“The association is involved in good and inclusive community-based action, rather than just hotel general managers getting together for a drink,” Lark said.
Phuket, like Bali in Indonesia and Boracay in the Philippines, has become a top holiday destination in Southeast Asia — and faces similar challenges.
Of a similar size to Singapore and at the geographical heart of Southeast Asia, Phuket is easily accessible to tourists from China, India, Malaysia and Australia.
With its white sandy beaches and infamous nightlife, Phuket attracts about 10 million visitors each year, media reports say, helping make the Thai tourism industry one of the few bright spots in an otherwise lackluster economy.
Popular with holiday makers and retirees, Phuket — like many other Southeast Asian resorts — must contend with traffic congestion, poor water management and patchy waste collection services.
Despite these persistent problems, hotels in the region need to follow Phuket’s lead and step up action to cut their dependence on plastics, said Susan Ruffo, a managing director at the US-based non-profit group Ocean Conservancy.
Worldwide, between 8 million and 15 million tons of plastic are dumped in the ocean every year, killing marine life and entering the human food chain, UN Environment says.
Five Asian countries — China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand — account for up to 60 percent of plastic waste leaking into the seas, an Ocean Conservancy study found.
“As both creators and ‘victims’ of waste, the hotel industry has a lot to gain by making efforts to control their own waste and helping their guests do the same,” Ruffo said.
“We are seeing more and more resorts and chains start to take action, but there is a lot more to be done, particularly in the area of ensuring that hotel waste is properly collected and recycled,” she added.
Data on how much plastic is used by hotels and the hospitality industry is hard to find. But packaging accounts for up to 40 percent of an establishment’s waste stream, according to a 2011 study by The Travel Foundation, a UK-based charity.
Water bottles, shampoo bottles, toothbrushes and even food delivered by room service all tend to use throw-away plastics.
In the past, the hospitality industry has looked at how to use less water and energy, said Von Hernandez, global coordinator at the “Break Free From Plastic” movement in Manila.
Now hotels are turning their attention to single-use plastics amid growing public awareness about damage to oceans.
“A lot of hotels are doing good work around plastics,” adopting measures to eliminate or shrink their footprint, said Hernandez.
But hotels in Southeast Asia often have to contend with poor waste management and crumbling infrastructure.
“I’ve seen resorts in Bali that pay staff to rake the beach every morning to get rid of plastic, but then they either dig a hole, and bury it or burn it on the beach,” said Ruffo. “Those are not effective solutions, and can lead to other issues.”
Hotels should look at providing reusable water containers and refill stations, giving guests metal or bamboo drinking straws and bamboo toothbrushes, and replacing single-use soap and shampoo containers with refillable dispensers, experts said.
“Over time, this could actually lower their operational costs — it could give them savings,” said Hernandez. “It could help change mindsets of people, so that when they go back to their usual lives, they have a little bit of education.”
Back in Phuket, the hotel association is exploring ways to cut plastic waste further, and will host its first regional forum on environmental awareness next month.
The hope is that what the group has learned over the last two years can be implemented at other Southeast Asian resorts and across the wider community.
“If the 20,000 staff in our hotels go home and educate mum and dad about recycling or reusing, it’s going to make a big difference,” said Lark.