In a conversation with my nephew Alex, he told me that he wanted to travel more. Famous places did not interest him, where long lines await you at monuments and ski lifts. He mentioned skiing in South America, and, in that vein, I suggested the Caucasus range in Georgia.
Tourism has certainly changed over the course of my lifetime. As volunteers in Morocco in the sixties, we knew that there were famous and wealthy Americans who had homes in Morocco, particularly in Tangier, and we occasionally crossed paths with the international stream of flower children visiting for exotic experiences and abundant kif. French tourists were common, of course, but tourism there had not yet taken off.
Today 11 or 12 million tourists visit Morocco a year. Americans only make up three percent with the large majority being Europeans, but tourism has become an important economic sector contributing to the national economy. Yes, it’s a far cry from Spain, where over 80 million tourists visit each year, and tourism, the third most important Spanish economic sector, accounts for over 11 percent of the country’s GDP, but Morocco still has the largest number of tourists of any African country, and that number is growing.
Returning to the sixties, when Spain already had more foreign visitors than citizens, newly independent Morocco had just begun to build a tourism infrastructure. Most hotels dated from the Protectorate, and lacked the amenities tourists were coming to expect. There was a room atop the Royal, in Rabat, which had no heat and was priced 7 DH per night, about $1.50 DH. Grand hotels like the Balima had become a bit shabby, and most of the smaller hotels had clearly seen better days. They didn’t bother Peace Corps volunteers, who lived on small monthly allowances, but those places only attracted budget travelers trying to stretch their dirhams.
In the sixties, the world was divided into Cold War blocs, including China, which was closed to Westerners, but it was a world of relative peace, if one can speak of peace when the threat of nuclear war hung over our heads. Africa was torn by post-colonial wars and independence movements, but one could still travel relatively freely. With another volunteer, I crossed the Sahara by truck, and traveled by local conveyances about West Africa. We never felt any real insecurity.
The worst experience that I remember was arriving in Niamey, having traveled hundreds of miles across unpaved washboard roads from Zinder in central Niger. Emerging from a packed Peugeot utility truck, we stumbled to the local Peace Corps office, where the Peace Corps director told us that sure we could stay in the Peace Corps hostel, there being a real dearth of hotels in all of the countries of the Sahel in those days, but first we would have to join an ongoing volleyball game. Exhausted, dusty, thirsty and hungry it seemed that we had no choice. I still cannot understand what was in that guy’s mind.
Somewhere on that trip we met a young motorcyclist who had crossed the Congo from East Africa, and anything seemed possible. Today, of course, the Sahel is aflame with sectarian violence and Islamicist armies. A few years ago my daughter, a photojournalist who cut her journalistic teeth in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the aftermath of the Iraq War of 2003, and the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006, thought of doing a story based on retracing my trip, only to decide it was far too dangerous!
Sadly, with travel easier and cheaper than ever, many places are literally overrun with tourists. In Venice, a small city, a couple of cruise ships can disgorge an army of sightseers far greater than any enemy Venice ever faced in her days of glory. Mount Everest has lines of climbers waiting to summit. Cruise ships carry tourists to Antarctica and the Northwest Passage.
Yet, wars rack Africa and the Middle East and terrorism adds to the insecurity. Even in the U.S., people seldom hitchhike the way they used to. In the summer of 1964, 18 years old, I hitched, with a high school buddy, from New Hampshire to Montreal, across Canada, down the west coast to southern California, and back home to the East, arriving safe and sound. So I recently sent Alex a couple of old pics of places that he is not going to visit any time soon. I am truly saddened by the fact that the world has not become a more peaceful place. Humanity may perhaps be paying the price of becoming more populous and richer, at the expense of greater economic inequality and democracy.