Morocco’s Marrakesh ‘suffocates’ without tourists

Tough government restrictions imposed to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, the tourism industry on which Marrakech depends screeched to a halt. (AFP)
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Updated 14 September 2020

Morocco’s Marrakesh ‘suffocates’ without tourists

  • Now the 11th century UNESCO World Heritage site is almost empty, and the city is facing an unprecedented crisis
  • Morocco declared a state of health emergency in mid-March and shut its borders

MARRAKESH: Snake charmers, storytellers and crowds of tourists; the legendary Jamaa El Fna square of Morocco’s Marrakesh is almost as famous for the number of visitors as its colorful performers.
But with tough government restrictions imposed to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, the tourism industry on which Marrakesh depends screeched to a halt.
Now the 11th century UNESCO World Heritage site is almost empty, and the city is facing an unprecedented crisis.
“Before, you had to wait your turn to get a table,” said Bachir, a waiter who has worked in the square for two decades, waving at the empty cafe terrace.
His neighbor Mohamed Bassir worries for the future.
“This is the first time I’ve seen the Jamaa El Fna so empty,” the orange juice seller said, sitting behind his stall decorated in plastic fruit.
“It makes me sad,” Bassir said, waiting to squeeze fruit for customers who do not come.
Usually teeming with people, the square lies forlorn and empty of the musicians, souvenir sellers and fortune tellers who ordinarily ply their trade.
Morocco declared a state of health emergency in mid-March and shut its borders to stop coronavirus from spreading.
The North African nation of 35 million inhabitants has recorded over 1,500 deaths from coronavirus and more than 86,600 confirmed cases.

In the labyrinth of alleys leading from the Jamaa El Fna, the narrow streets once packed with stalls selling everything from slippers to spices are largely shuttered.
Only a few are open, but the shopkeepers have little hope.
“Most of the traders have closed their shops,” said Mohamed Challah, who sells flowing caftan robes.
“The others are opening to kill time because there is nothing to do at home,” he said, adding that his store “no longer sells anything.”
After the initial pandemic restrictions were eased, traders and tourist operators hoped domestic tourism might mitigate their losses.
But then the surprise announcement of new restrictions, including the closure of Marrakesh and seven other cities, shattered hopes of a revival.
Last year, the city attracted three of the 13 million tourists who came to the country.
For Jalil Habti Idrissi, who runs a 45-year-old travel agency, it will be “very difficult to bounce back.”
“We have experienced major crises in the past, but never of this magnitude,” Idrissi said, adding his business had “collapsed.”
On social media, there are calls to “save” the city, with many using the hashtag “Marrakesh suffocates.”

But many are also worried about the Covid-19 crisis itself, posting images of patients suffering from the virus.
They show patients sleeping on the floor in the hospital in Marrakesh.
The city’s testing laboratories were overwhelmed.
Marrakesh, along with the economic capital Casablanca, is among the most affected cities.
Like all governments, the authorities have to weigh lockdown measures against the need to keep the economy alive.
Official figures predict the pandemic could push the country into its worst recession since 1996, with a contraction of more than five percent of its GDP.
In desperation, some took to the streets to protest, calling on the government for help.
“The coronavirus will not have time to kill us, hunger will take care of it before,” read one banner held by protesters in Marrakesh on September 11.
Tourist operators cling on to a glimmer of hope, with the government allowing travelers not needing a visa to fly to Morocco — upon the presentation of a hotel reservation and a negative coronavirus test.
But it is only a “partial opening of borders,” said Ibtissam Jamili, who runs a five-star hotel in Marrakesh, mourning what he calls “colossal losses.”
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HERITAGE OIL


Iranian asylum seeker stuck in limbo on divided Cyprus

Iranian singer Omid Tootian, 46, gestures during an interview at a coffee shop in the UN-controlled buffer zone in the Cypriot capital Nicosia, on September 23, 2020, where he's been stuck since mid-September. (AFP)
Updated 27 September 2020

Iranian asylum seeker stuck in limbo on divided Cyprus

  • Because his songs are very critical of the Iranian regime, Tootian fears that if he returns to the north of the island, he will first be sent back to Turkey and then to Iran

NICOSIA: Dissident Iranian singer Omid Tootian has for days been sleeping in a tent in the buffer zone of the world’s last divided capital, after being refused entry by the Republic of Cyprus.
“I can’t go to one side or the other,” the performer, in his mid-40s, whose songs speak out against Iranian authorities, told AFP. “I’m stuck living in the street.”
His tent is pitched between two checkpoints in western Nicosia, among the weeds outside an abandoned house in the quasi-“no man’s land” that separates the northern and southern parts of Cyprus, which has been divided since 1974.
In early September, he traveled to the north of the Mediterranean island, controlled by the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognized only by Ankara.
Two weeks later, Tootian, who had been living in Turkey for around three years, tried for the first time to seek asylum in the Republic of Cyprus, which controls the southern two-thirds of the island and is in the EU.  But once at the green line, the 180 -km buffer zone that traverses the island and is patrolled by UN peacekeepers, he was denied entry into the south.
Refusing to return to the TRNC, where he fears he would be in danger, Tootian found himself in limbo in the few hundred meters of land that divides the two territories.
“I don’t know why they haven’t approved my entry ... but I think it’s because of the coronavirus,” he said, speaking at the pro-unification Home for Cooperation community center in the buffer zone where he eats, grooms and spends most of his days.
“But I hope things will become clear because now I don’t know what will happen, and it’s a very difficult situation.”
Because his songs are very critical of the Iranian regime, Tootian fears that if he returns to the north of the island, he will first be sent back to Turkey and then to Iran.

Turkey is no longer a safe country for me because the Turkish regime is close to Iran.

Omid Tootian, Dissident Iranian singer

“Turkey is no longer a safe country for me because the Turkish regime is close to Iran,” he said, adding that he had for the past six months been receiving anonymous “threats” from unknown callers using private phone numbers.
In July, three Iranians were sentenced to death by the Islamic republic. Two of them had initially fled to Turkey and, according to the non-governmental group the Center for Human Rights in Iran, Turkish authorities cooperated with Tehran to repatriate them.
Since arriving at the checkpoint, Tootian has tried “four or five times” in a week to enter, without success, despite the help of a migrant rights advocacy group known as KISA and the UN mission in the buffer zone.
According to European and international regulations, Cyprus cannot expel an asylum seeker until the application has been considered and a final decision issued.
The police said “they have restrictions not to let anybody in,” KISA member Doros Polycarpou told AFP.
Cypriot police spokesman Christos Andreou said “it is not the responsibility of the police” to decide who can enter the Republic of Cyprus.
They “follow the instructions of the Ministry of Interior,” put in place “because of the pandemic,” he added.
According to the ministry, “all persons who are willing to cross from a legal entry point to the area controlled by the Republic must present a negative COVID-19 test carried out within the last 72 hours” — a requirement Tootian said he had fulfilled.
Polycarpou charges that the Cypriot “government has used the pandemic to restrict basic human rights.”
A spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency in Cyprus Emilia Strovolidou said “there are other means to protect asylum seekers and public health at the same time ... we can test people when they arrive or take quarantine measures.”
“We have someone who is seeking international protection, he should have access to the process,” she added.
Due to the closure of other migration routes to Europe, asylum applications have increased sixfold over the last five years in Cyprus — a country of fewer than 1 million inhabitants — from 2,265 in 2015 to 13,650 in 2019, according to Eurostat data.