Three executives explain why it is crucial to continue to support the country
When last week’s earthquake struck in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains – the most powerful to hit the country in a century – many travel industry professionals were among those in the country to experience the natural disaster, known to have killed more than 2,500 people.
They gave Travel Weekly their personal accounts of the tragedy.
Mike Bonner, global director of sales, marketing and digital for Perowne International, a luxury travel brands consultancy, was in Marrakech to host an event prior to this year’s Pure Life Experiences 2023 conference.
He said: “I was in a restaurant with colleagues at around 11pm on Friday and we had just moved to sit outside. Initially it sounded like trucks rumbling down the street, like a vibration. We were looking around us wondering what it was and suddenly everything, all the tables, were shaking. It lasted less than a minute and then everyone – customers and staff – started to pile out of the restaurant and run out the door. It was like a stampede; everyone was panicking. I gather it was the same everywhere. Everyone wanted to be outside.
“When we were in the street there were lots of people. They were upset and trying to work out what had just happened. We Googled it and something came up about an earthquake. We decided to stick together, we had other colleagues in the city and were messaging them. People slept outside because they were worried about staying inside their buildings. There were people due to attend the Pure conference who were grabbing duvets and pillows from their hotel rooms and sleeping by the pool.
People were already getting on with life again the day after the earthquake
“Our riad in the old town was undamaged but the next day when we were walking around there were lots of damaged buildings, and some were down. Some of the travel conference delegates were going to supermarkets to buy toilet rolls and blankets to take to the foot of the Atlas Mountains, to be taken up to help villagers. People slept outside, on the streets, for the whole weekend.
“That said, people were already getting on with life again the day after the earthquake. The Medina was open and the shops were open and they were saying they wanted people to keep coming to Morocco. They need the income. They have just come out of Covid; they were hit badly and they have just recovered. The reality is that Marrakech and other parts of the destination are operating fine. This is a one-off and it’s safe to visit. I am going back in January with my wife on holiday (our trip in Covid was cancelled) and we will be staying in the heart of the Medina.”
Brothers Chris and Mike McHugo run mountain lodge Kasbah du Toubkal near Imlil in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, which is used by operators as a base for trekking holidays. Directors of Aito operator Discover Limited, the pair were in the lodge, around 25 miles from the earthquake’s epicentre, with staff and customers when the disaster happened.
“We were all asleep, it was after 11pm, when it started rumbling. It was like white water rafting on land but only lasted about 10 seconds. We were downstairs in the underground bedroom. Things were tumbling around and falling from the ceiling. My brother managed to climb his way out from the upstairs to the outside of the building where there was roll call for all the guests; we had about 20 staying, and there were staff.
“I had to get out the building about 20 minutes later, I was told it was going to collapse. Luckily I was able to put my shoes on; some people hadn’t got them on. Then we spent the night sleeping outside looking up to the skies, and we did the same the following night. I was stuck there for about 48 hours.
We don’t know how we are going to fund it but we will build back better
“The guests walked to Imlil on Saturday morning but the road was not open so they ended up sleeping outside a sister property. I went down on Sunday morning; by then the road had opened but it was single-file and we were controlling the traffic ourselves each way. I managed to get back to Marrakech about 2pm on Sunday.
“Guests have cancelled their stays and we have closed the lodge until further notice. It’s our busy season so we’ve been contacting clients to see if they want to stay somewhere else. We have 15 guest rooms and we have lost five in the quake. We have lost our kitchen and dining room. The damage in the new part of our building is very superficial, most of the photos are still on the walls. We don’t know how we are going to fund it but we will build back better. It looks as if we will have to demolish all of the damaged buildings; we will need to make the site collectively safe. It’s going to take a while. Earthquakes of this size don’t happen very often. I first visited Morocco in 1969, but I’ve never been anywhere near an earthquake.”
Intrepid managing director EMEA Zina Bencheikh was in Casablanca when the earthquake struck. She travelled to Marrakech, where she is from, the following day to Intrepid’s offices to check on staff and customers and help put in plan the operator’s emergency plans and fundraising appeal.
“I moved from London back to Morocco, where I’m from, a year ago. Morocco is Intrepid’s biggest destination. I am from Marrakech but I work in our Casablanca office. I was at home on Friday night in Casablanca and I felt the earthquake there.
“We are not used to earthquakes in this country so it was a big shock; this was no prediction of an earthquake. We were all wondering what to do. We all went out into the streets with our children in their pyjamas. The instruction from the local authorities was to go outside and leave your buildings as soon as possible after the earthquake. Luckily our home was not damaged but we were outside until 2am. We were texting each other to check our families and friends were okay.
Not to be able to work again would be the worst thing that could happen to the people here
“During the rest of Friday night, we [senior management] spent the time contacting Intrepid’s teams and customers on the ground; we had 77 staff and 660 customers as it’s a busy time here in Morocco at the moment. We quickly connected with our teams and put our emergency plan in place; we wanted to make sure everyone was safe, that was our priority. I was constantly on the phone with my teams to make sure everyone was accounted for.
“The next day I came to Marrakech to check on the team and assess the situation. The travel advisories have not changed so they are not saying don’t come to Morocco. We have rerouted tours to avoid the mountains and minimise time in Marrakech to go to the newest parts of the city, which are quite iconic. The pandemic was too devastating and not to be able to work again would be the worst thing that could happen to the people here. We would not travel here if it wasn’t safe. You can still enjoy Morocco on holiday. We have to rebuild; their [locals] livelihoods depend on that.”
Main photo: Mike Bonner