Features

Morocco: Mosques, medinas and meetings

6 Mar 2024 by Tamsin Cocks
The Hassan II Mosque (RuslanKaln/iStock)

Casablanca is the centre of Morocco’s economic power, while key investments in Tangier have transformed the region.

When you think of Casablanca, you can’t help but think of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman exchanging sassy one-liners. The 1942 Hollywood classic conjures up a feeling of old-world glamour, romance and mystique that lingers to this day.

Disappointingly, it turns out not a single scene was actually filmed in Morocco. It was entirely shot at Warner Bros Studios in California, bar a few starring roles from Van Nuys airport and stock footage of Paris. (Rick’s Cafe does exist, but it was opened in 2004 as a tribute to the film by former US diplomat Kathy Kriger.)

There’s still a sense of magic though, particularly at dawn when the city wakes under a blanket of fog that’s sweetly tinged with the scent of the ocean, with the faint echo of mosques calling residents to prayer. As the sun pushes through, a bustling metropolis comes to life, and the spell is somewhat broken.

Casablanca, the centre of the Casablanca-Settat administrative region, is a major economic hub perched on the northwest tip of Africa. It is ranked the 54th most powerful in the world, according to the Global Financial Centres Index 2023 report, placing it between Brussels and Rome.

It’s the financial capital of Morocco (Rabat, 90km up the coast, is the official capital) and the ‘economic locomotive’ of the country, with diverse business sectors generating 32 per cent of the country’s GDP and 78 per cent of external trade. Salman Barrada, director at the Casablanca Centre of Regional Investment, says: “Casablanca is really the story of Moroccan development. In the last 20 years particularly, we’ve seen huge acceleration in a lot of sectors, from pharmaceuticals to tech and renewable energy.”

The region has invested heavily in solar power facilities over the past 15 years. “More than a quarter of local energy needs are supplied by renewable energy sources,” says Barrada, with that figure set to reach 50 per cent by 2030 in conjunction with a major upcoming hydrogen project.

Financial services, banks, and insurance projects are also increasing. The Casablanca Finance City (CFC) is a special financial district modelled on the DIFC in Dubai, with economic incentives and tax breaks. Over 200 companies are headquartered here, including big European and Chinese names such as BNP Paribas, HSBC and Huawei. “Corporations from 50 African nations are also represented in the CFC, making it useful for those wanting to do business across the wider continent,” adds Barrada.

Casablanca is also an important MICE destination, with numerous hotels, conferences and major exhibition halls. Casablanca’s Exhibition Fair is currently undergoing a reconstruction to become the Congress and Exhibition Centre – a world-class MICE facility opposite Hassan II Mosque that will be able to host up to 2,000 people when complete in 2025.

Boulevard Mohammed V in Casablanca (Mohammed Serhir/iStock)

Well-connected hub

The constant stream of business travellers are served by a large international airport and modern infrastructure. Mohammed V International airport (named after King Mohammed V, who led Morocco to independence from French and Spanish colonial rule in 1956) welcomed 7 million passengers in 2022. The airport has connections to around 35 African countries, while national carrier Royal Air Maroc serves London twice daily.

It’s a 40-minute drive outside of the CBD – depending on traffic. Alternatively, there’s a train that connects to both Casa Port and Casa Voyageurs, the city’s main railway station, which links to the tramway system covering 71 stops. A further two tram lines are currently under construction (replacing plans for a long-touted Metro system).

One of the most impressive pieces of infrastructure is the Al Boraq high-speed rail service that covers the 323km between Casablanca and Tangier, also calling at Rabat. Launched in 2018, it is the first high-speed rail service in Africa, and has slashed travel time between Casablanca and Tangier from five to two hours. Advance first class tickets can be purchased from £15, with services roughly every hour. Built in just five years, it represents the first phase of an estimated 1,500km high-speed network that will eventually connect the country, with the next phase due to reach Agadir and Marrakech.

Culture and cuisine

You’ll probably come to Casablanca for business, but leave some time to explore. The city’s biggest attraction is Hassan II Mosque, opened in 1993. The gleaming temple, perched dramatically over the ocean, is one of the largest mosques in the world. The enormous structure can hold 25,000 worshippers, with a further 80,000 in the courtyards. Inside is a showcase of Moroccan craftsmanship – more than 12,500 people contributed to its construction, from the intricate wood carvings to beautiful mosaic tile work. The awe-inspiring space also has anti-seismic measures, a retractable roof and heated floors, plus ornate underground washrooms.

For a memorable lunch, head further down the Corniche to soak up dramatic views of wild Atlantic waves crashing over rocks at Le Cabestan. The gorgeous seafront restaurant serves up French and Mediterranean-inspired seafood, with dishes of fresh swordfish and octopus. Alternatively, enjoy modern seafood dishes at El Cenador, also located on the Corniche.

Elsewhere, you’ll find an eclectic mix of architecture around the city, from traditional Moroccan buildings to Art Deco edifices, the historic Medina with skilled craftsmen and savvy merchants displaying their wares, and modern museums and galleries.

For dinner, head to Dar Dada, located down an alley in the heart of the Medina. The authentic Moroccan restaurant is housed in a century-old riad (villa), and serves classic dishes from mezze to lamb tagine packed with olives and couscous. Enjoy regional Arabic songs and belly dancing performances while you eat.

City tram on a street of Casablanca in Morocco (Leonid Andronov/iStock)

Tangier beckons

Two hundred miles up the coast, Tangier is a world away from the frantic grind of Casablanca. Lying on the tip where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean, you can wave at Spain, around ten kilometres across the Strait of Gibraltar. The coastal city is modern and bustling, with 400km of coastline, a palm-fringed beachfront, luxurious marina, historic kasbah (fortified city) and plenty of cultural charm.

Five years ago, there wasn’t enough occupancy to host large business events. Now the city offers 30,500 beds with luxury and five-star hotels. This includes the modern 180-room Hilton Tangier, located directly opposite the train station, with gorgeous views from its event spaces, executive lounge and pool terrace. Its neighbour, the Hilton Garden Inn, is older and more business-focused, with 320 rooms and standard event facilities.

Nestled in the hills overlooking Tangier, the Fairmont Tazi Palace offers luxury accommodation in a gorgeous setting that pays homage to traditional Moroccan architecture. There’s a slew of dining options, a ballroom and boardrooms, plus a spa and pool. Perched on the seafront, The Barceló Tanger offers 200 rooms and a wraparound terrace at its restaurants and lounge bar, frequented by a DJ in the evening. One of the oldest properties is the Hotel Marina Bay, which opened in 1934, with a total refurbishment in 2019. More hotels are in the works, plus five luxury golf courses.

Two things have had a major impact on Tangier’s fortunes. The first is the aforementioned high-speed rail, and the second is Tanger Med Port. The US$11.2 billion-dollar port launched in 2007 and became fully operational in 2019. Located on the Strait of Gibraltar, it’s in prime position to serve the 100,000 container ships that traverse east to west each year.

The facility is capable of processing 9 million containers per year, 7 million passengers and 1 million vehicles, and along with huge industrial units nearby, is used by major international companies including Decathlon, Adidas and DHL. As a result, Tanger Med has pushed Casablanca into the top 20 maritime nations in the world.Director of Tanger Med Port, Rachid Houari describes its rapid rise to success: “When you build ports, you try to fill them up in 20-30 years. Tanger Med 1 was full in six years and Tanger Med 2, which only opened four years ago, will be full in the next four years. That’s incredibly fast”.

He credits the geographic position, client satisfaction and strong management as key factors in the port’s success, and stresses how important it has been in attracting business. “The fact we built this port so quickly and its overall success helps when foreign ministers or investors come to visit,” he says.

The proof is in the pudding. Thirty years ago, Tangier was the sixth or seventh economic city – now it’s second after Casablanca, contributing up to 11 per cent of the country’s GDP. There are 25 smart cities, such as Mohammed VI Tangier Tech City, a joint venture with the Chinese government to specialise in a range of industries such as automotive, aeronautics, electronics, textiles and renewable energies. The region has five wind farms that contribute almost 30 per cent of Morocco’s renewable energy sources, plus the country’s first photovoltaic plant.

There are also industrial zones (like the recently launched Loukkos Agropole, generating 8,000 jobs in agritech fields), free zones, economic zones, numerous educational institutions, including an outpost of the University of Cardiff, and two sports stadiums under construction.

As we chat, news breaks that Morocco’s bid to host the 2030 World Cup (with Portugal and Spain) has been successful. It’s further proof of the port’s role in raising the country’s profile.“Stadiums can host up to 100,000 people but you also need infrastructure to bring that many people here,” says Houari. “You might have passengers wanting to come from Spain for the day and go back. Aeroplanes can never do as much as ships – we do 50,000 passengers a day. This will give us plenty of work in the future!” With so much recent development and more on the horizon, here’s looking at you, Morocco.

Casablanca, Morocco (Mtcurado/iStock)a

Where to stay

Sofitel Casablanca Tour Blanche

The Sofitel, which opened in 2012, recently completed a renovation of its 171 rooms and suites. Up next are the F&B spaces, with a Japanese eatery set to be revealed this summer. The luxury property is located in the historic centre, close to the Medina, and a ten-minute walk to the train, with a tram station nearby. Facilities range from a spa to two meeting rooms for groups of up to 300.

Hyatt Regency Casablanca

Mahogany panels and a marbled lobby frame Cartier and Berluti boutiques at the glamorous Hyatt Regency, also in the historic centre. There are 255 rooms and suites. Dining includes breakfast under a magnificent dome at Bessat, Moroccan cuisine and belly dancing at Dar Beida and modern bites at French Brasserie Café M. Facilities include a tropical outdoor pool, gym, hammam, sauna, boxing area and squash courts. Live music club Black House Discotheque is a hot spot for Casablanca’s late-night crowd. There are also meeting rooms, an exhibition space and ballrooms.

Four Seasons Hotel Casablanca

The Four Seasons boasts a prime position on the Corniche with unobstructed ocean views. The interiors offers modern resort vibes, with exquisite details such as hand-carved Moroccan ceilings in the lobby. Each of the 186 rooms and suites offers beach views and balconies. Head to Latitude 33 for a chic poolside restaurant and Mint for Moroccan and Middle Eastern fare. In the evening, meats and seafood are fired over a grill at Bleu. A ballroom and seven function rooms cater to a wide range of events.

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The cover of the Business Traveller May 2024 edition
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