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Building boom lures visitors to Morocco's 'Red City'

There are luxury hotels and resorts, gardens, landscaped areas alongside shops, restaurants, cafes and galleries

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The Four Seasons in Marrakech, Morocco. As more wealthy tourists flock to the country, Marrakesh is reinventing itself with luxury hotels and resorts and fashioning itself as a contemporary art destination to attract its share of visitors.

Marrakech, Morocco

ONE of the first stops for visitors to this city is the medina, the cacophonous mazelike Arab quarter of the city, bustling with snake charmers, henna artists and shopkeepers selling spices, pottery and textiles.

Lately, Marrakech is also abuzz with more modern sounds: the hum of construction vehicles building a flurry of luxury hotels and resorts to accommodate a growing wave of tourists.

Marrakech has long been a weekend getaway for well-heeled Moroccans from Casablanca and Rabat, the nation's capital.

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But a surge of wealthy international visitors is helping charge the high-end construction boom and bringing global attention to the "Red City", as it is named because of its rose-coloured buildings. In early August, the singer Madonna celebrated her 60th birthday in Marrakech and documented the festivities on Twitter.

More than 11 million people visited Morocco in 2017, an increase of 10 per cent over the previous year, according to the Moroccan Ministry of Tourism. The number of US visitors has increased at an even quicker pace. Last year, more than 254,000 Americans visited the North African country, a rise of 29 per cent over 2016 and 81 per cent over 2012.

More flights, an easing of visa regulations and a concerted effort by the Kingdom of Morocco to modernise infrastructure and improve safety have all played a part.

As more visitors come to Morocco, Marrakech is reinventing itself to lure its share of tourists, who stay an average of three nights.

"One of the main challenges of the tourism sector in Marrakech is increasing the length of stay," said Alexis Reynaud, an editorial manager at the Oxford Business Group, a research and consulting firm. "New high-end resorts and hotels are starting to offer much more than just luxury lodging to encourage people to stay longer."

Leading the pack among these new ventures is M Avenue, a US$100 million multi-use project known as Garden Avenue because it will include nearly 108,000 square feet of gardens and landscaped areas alongside about 183,000 sq ft of shops, restaurants, cafes and galleries. Lodging will include a 168-room hotel from Portuguese hotelier Pestana and 88 private residences from the Four Seasons.

"We are trying to create a new city centre," said Nabil Slitine, the chief executive of M Avenue Development, who in 2011 helped open the Four Seasons Resort, one of the first international hotels in the city.

Paul White, president of residential for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, said he wanted to increase the company's footprint in Marrakech.

M Avenue, which is near the airport and the Palais de Congrès conference centre, offers "access to the sights of the city, including the medina and Menara gardens, while also acting as a convenient takeoff point to venture into the surrounding region, including the Atlas Mountains", he said.

Nearby, a W hotel is under construction, a Ritz-Carlton hotel is slated to open in 2022, and a Park Hyatt hotel is being built amid a US$450 million urban golf and retail complex known as Marrakech Golf City, set to open in 2024.

Even as demand has increased, several obstacles have stymied these projects. Instability in other North African countries such as Egypt and Tunisia caused concern for early investors, and the scarcity of usable land in Marrakech makes large real estate projects expensive.

The government has made a big push to promote the country and Marrakech in particular. A new police division focused on tourism has helped decrease theft, violence and drug trafficking to make the city safer for tourists.

The government has also modernised infrastructure, including the construction of a new central train station in 2008. In late 2016, a new terminal was added to the international airport in Marrakech.

Business visitors are also coming in larger numbers, thanks to more international conferences such as the 22nd session of the Conference of the Parties, or COP22, a climate change meeting in 2016.

The easing of visa regulations for specific countries has also bolstered tourism. In June 2016, Morocco exempted Chinese nationals from visa requirements. In 2017, 118,000 visitors came from China, a 1,022 per cent increase from 2015.

To take advantage, Marrakech is ramping up its offerings. Visitors already flock to the city to explore the many secret gardens, to unwind in the traditional Moroccan steam baths and to wander the souks.

Marrakech is also fashioning itself as a contemporary art destination. French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent famously started spending time in Marrakech in the 1960s, and in late 2017, an Yves Saint Laurent museum opened near one of the designer's former residences near the Majorelle Garden.

Designed by French painter Jacques Majorelle, the gardens contain hundreds of species of plants, landscaped streams and pools, and bright cobalt blue buildings, making it one of Marrakech's biggest tourist draws.

"High-end museums and art help attract wealthier travellers," Mr Reynaud of the Oxford Business Group said. "Tourists can visit galleries and also buy art at reasonable prices compared to London, New York and Paris."

M Avenue's planned Pestana CR7 hotel will bring a Portuguese influence, too. This joint venture between Portugal's largest hotel chain and Cristiano Ronaldo, the soccer star, will target millennials. Ronaldo said he was drawn to Marrakech for his latest CR7 hotel (named after his jersey number) because it was a "unique destination, exotic and authentic, with enormous tourism potential".

Although 80 per cent of the Four Seasons residences are sold, it remains to be seen how the broader real estate market in Marrakech absorbs all the properties under construction.

In 2017, overall real estate prices in Marrakech rose 5 per cent, but the volume of trades fell 13 per cent. "Prices were too high - the bubble had to burst. Now, it's a better window to buy," Mr Reynaud said. NYTIMES