Flame jets from the mouths of fire-eaters as dusk settles upon Djemaa el Fna square, bringing with it respite from the heat. Screams emanate from the crowd around a snake charmer, while women in kaftans queue to consult the astrologer. All is bustle and business, apart from one corner close to the Pasha’s entrance to the souk. Here, Marrakshis are gathered around Abderrahim el-Azalia, one of the last of the halqa storytellers, who continue Morocco’s rich oral tradition. El-Azalia’s audience sit cross-legged and rapt; my friend Yusuf begins to interpret from Darija, the local dialect, for me. The tale, of a wise Sultan confronting a desert of troubles, enticing houris and conniving viziers, incorporates many of the elements of One Thousand and One Nights. But a question arises: when is this saga set? In 10th-century Baghdad, or present-day Morocco? “It has no ending yet, happy or otherwise, because the story is still unfolding,” replies Yusuf elliptically.
After a sleep of centuries, during the last few years Marrakech’s own story has been unfolding rapidly. Cranes tower above minarets as yet another luxury hotel is completed near the Menara Gardens. Yet the life of the medina continues virtually unchanged, men in djellabas pausing to embrace in the medieval alleys before stepping aside for donkeys laden with cardamom. Contemporary lore has it that the number of riads in the old city is now around the same as the Arabian Nights – 1,001. The tourist office thinks there could be more, though no-one is able to say for certain.
It is, however, the sudden flowering of five-star resorts in the oases beyond the ancient ramparts that astonishes all. “Every luxury hotelier in the world wants a piece of Marrakech,” observes Brett Gregory-Peake, managing director of marketing consultants Frank & Earnest, who has advised on several of the largest projects. Many of the big names in the hospitality industry have entered agreements with local partners – sometimes with outstanding results, sometimes with no result at all. “So, is it the Gold Rush or the Wild West?” I ask Gregory-Peake. His answer is a succinct “both”. Yet despite the chaos, many original interpretations of contemporary luxury are emerging, formed by some of the most creative minds in hospitality. Delegates attending the Financial Times’ Business of Luxury summit from May 30 to June 1 will be among the first to see the Oetker Collection’s opulent Palais Namaskar and Selman Marrakech, where Arabian thoroughbreds occupy stables built alongside private riad-villas.
Analysts attempting to keep up with events could do worse than to join the crowd in Djemaa el Fna, where a new story is being told of Chinese merchants who build a palace outside a great city. Being unfamiliar with local customs, they fail to placate the djinn of that place, and however hard they labour, the residence is never completed. The tale concludes with them surrendering the palace to rajahs from India. At this point analysts may begin to smell a large bazaar rat: could this be a reference to recent events for the Mandarin Oriental group, which struggled to complete a luxury hotel out beyond the Palmeraie, one that it had a management agreement to operate? (A difference of vision with the owners and developers led to it eventually giving way to the Taj group.) This story is now approaching its dénouement, as the Taj Palace prepares for a grand opening this summer. If there is one thing the Taj group knows about, it is operating royal palaces as hotels – expertise that will be deployed here on a scale comparable to that of its resorts in Jaipur, Mumbai and Udaipur. Wide balconies, fireplaces and eye-popping colours define 161 rooms and suites decorated by the Orientalist painter and architect Stuart Church, whose clients have included the late Yves Saint Laurent.
For all the international hotel industry’s apparent determination to create a new, more refined version of Dubai here, no-one has found the process easy – despite encouragement from the highest level. King Mohammed VI’s own hotel within the city walls, the Royal Mansour, recently employed the finest craftsmen from Fez and reputedly every plumber in Casablanca. Local competitors are still unable to discern the business model, however. It is widely believed that no construction budget was set for the project; the architect simply kept going until the king was satisfied. The results are certainly impressive: 53 private riad courtyard houses with roof terraces, featuring Umayyad dynastic architecture, exquisite tiling and moulded plasterwork. Meanwhile, the hotel’s French restaurant, Le Grande Table Française, directed by the triple-Michelin-starred Yannick Alléno of Paris’s Le Meurice, gives an innovative, contemporary spin to classic dishes and has helped to shake up the city’s local restaurant scene.
Marrakech has long had a secular palace, La Mamounia, the historic hotel patronised by everyone from Chaplin to Churchill. However, it was the success of its exotic – and costly – reinvention by that prince of hotel designers, Jacques Garcia, which served as a catalyst to investors, establishing proof of concept for the Arabian Nights model. Key elements? A stellar French chef (Fabrice Lasnon), a spa worthy of the imperial harem and interiors suitable for operatic stagings – all conjured with the help of one key magic word: dirhams.
There is little doubt that the recently opened 141-room Four Seasons Marrakech will soon spawn fairy tales of its own. It is certainly the talk of the travel trade, dividing opinion between enthusiastic early-adopters and those who dismiss its generic interpretation as “Marrakech lite”. This may be to miss the point, for not every visitor to the Red City harbours a taste for the traditional décor of the riads. “Sometimes all one wants is a comfortable bed, a good reading light and a working bath,” sighs one traveller. What the Four Seasons offers is its own contemporary interpretation of luxury – this time in an Andalusian setting complete with elegant, burbling water features. Interestingly, it is at this hotel that guests are encouraged to participate in some of the most authentic local experiences on offer, such as a day spent in a Berber mountain village off the tourist track.
A buzz has also built around Palais Namaskar, a sibling to the Oetker Collection’s Le Bristol in Paris and Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc at Antibes. Visitors may be surprised by the luxurious hotel they discover in the desert, but they are unlikely to be disappointed. Set in 40,000sq m of Balinese-inspired gardens, the resort is awash with private swimming pools, lakes and islands, all aligned in accordance with feng-shui principles. The 41 suites, villas and miniature palaces offer complete privacy, which can be configured to guests’ requirements, while Franco-Morrocan design chic is dispensed by Imaad Rahmouni, a protégé of Philippe Starck.
All of this raises the question: why here? And why now? Property specialists note the coincidence of waves of investment and wobbles in Dubai. “Bets are being hedged,” notes Gregory-Peake. It certainly makes sense. Saudi and Gulf investors appreciate Marrakech’s Arabic culture, climate and tax breaks. For British guests, there is the promise of exoticism just over three hours’ flight away. No surprise, then, that British Airways’ direct route from London, which was introduced last year, is performing well and is widely expected to be bumped up to a daily service before the end of 2012.
With the hospitality world turning its attention to Marrakech, residents and longtime visitors fret that its unique character will be diluted. But the city has been an elite destination for many years; during the 1970s one was likely to encounter a Getty, a Rolling Stone, or perhaps even Saint Laurent himself. Elisabeth Bauchet-Bouhlal, managing director of Es Saadi Gardens and Resort (which has been run by her family for three generations) envisages the visitor profile changing as the city promotes cultural events like the Art Fair and Film Festival. Meanwhile, her own guest-room inventory has been uplifted by the addition of 10 romantic garden villas, which have already attracted the patronage of Leonardo di Caprio and Martin Scorsese.
In a destination less vividly coloured, such extravagance might appear overindulgent, but in Marrakech, more is more. Yet in the oldest part of the medina, tastes are now turning away from the decorative excess fostered by 19th-century Orientalist painting. The magical Riad Joya, for instance, is a haven of contemporary Italian simplicity amid the medieval labyrinth. Designed by Umberto Maria Branchini, it features seven crisp, airy suites, charming staff and Moroccan cooking with the added surprise of an extensive and flawlessly executed Tuscan menu, all of which makes for an atmosphere of laid-back sophistication.
Riad Joya opened just 16 months ago, but it is a portent of things to come. “Royal advisors looked hard at Dubai and Las Vegas – and they didn’t like what they saw,” says one developer. “You won’t be encountering mindless glitz here.” Instead, the newest hotels refer back to the architectural treasures of the Moroccan Caliphate of Córdoba in Spain. Selman Marrakech, owned by Abdeslam Bennani Smires, the scion of a cosmopolitan Moroccan family, is a case in point, featuring design by Jacques Garcia and operational expertise from cult hotelier Grace Leo Andrieu. The result is arresting, with spacious guest rooms and suites commanding Atlas views, as well as five riad-inspired villas with their own pools inside large walled garden compounds. The three restaurants are exceptional – one of them has just a single table at the top of a tower with 360-degree views.
“Luxury hotel-keeping is splintering into distinct niches, and nowhere faster than in Marrakech,” says Albee Yeend, the regional manager for Africa at travel operator Red Savannah. City palaces, family resorts, spa retreats and designer riads make matching guest to resort infinitely trickier than in more straightforward destinations, such as Oman or Sharm el-Sheikh. Leaving the choice of resort to internet research in such a landscape is to court an expensive mistake. Better to consult an expert travel operator, who may well procure an upgrade, if not a complimentary balloon flight or camel safari – or perhaps a visit to Djemaa el Fna, for a news update hot from the lips of Abderrahim el-Azalia.