#OpenTheBorders: Morocco's impulsive border closures leaves citizens, tourists stranded

Passengers wait for their flights at the Marrakesh Airport on March 15, 2020. - Several special flights departed Morocco taking thousands of stranded Europeans home as the kingdom announced it was suspending all regular air traffic due to the coronavirus, authorities and airports said. Morocco said it had decided to suspend all international commercial flights "until further notice", extending a ban that had previously been applied to around 30 nations, including Italy, France and Spain. (Photo by - / AFP)
4 min read
25 January, 2022
A group of stranded Moroccans, tourism operators and health activists have urged the Moroccans government to open up its borders, as the Ministry of Health continues to be condemned for its inconsistent policies throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

"My husband may lose his job if he can't come back to Morocco this month", says Iman. Her husband left Morocco in November to visit her ailing mother in the United States, but has since been stranded for more than two months after the Moroccan government suspended all incoming flights at the end of 2021. 

Iman's husband is not alone. Many other Moroccan citizens have been left stranded, with their careers on the line and loved ones missed. Under the hashtag #OpenTheBorders, this group has voiced their anger over what they have said is a "pointless and harsh procedure". 

"I am double vaccinated, I just can't understand why I can't return to my country and be with my sister at the birth of our first child. This is absurd!", Hafssa, a Moroccan residing in France, told The New Arab

"Morocco’s tourism revenues dropped by 58.1 % at the end of June 2021 to  MAD 8.8 billion ($978 million).The number of hotel bookings also fell from 25.2 million in 2019 to just seven million the following year"

With the variant Omicron leading many Arab countries to implement punitive travel measures, the Moroccan government suspended all international flights to and from the country on the 28th November 2021. 

However, due to intense public pressure, Morocco then backed down on this pledge by allowing exceptional flights from Turkey, the UAE and Portugal to bring back 5000 stranded Moroccan citizens

Despite the limited number of international flights, the Kingdom registered its first Omicron case on December 15. Cases have sinced reached up to 9000 a day, forcing dozens of schools across the country to close. 

Members of the National Association of Travel Agencies of Morocco (ANAVM) protest against the closing of the borders during a demonstration in Rabat on January 4, 2022
Members of the National Association of Travel Agencies of Morocco (ANAVM) protest against the closing of the borders during a demonstration in Rabat on January 4, 2022 [Getty Images]

But in another u-turn in policy, while flights from Morocco have begun to re-operate, the Moroccan government decided to annul all exceptional flights until further notice. 

"The current circumstances require taking the decision to close [the airports]. The government will be forced to toughen the procedures if the situation becomes more alarming,” said the government spokesperson Mustapha Baitass, as he announced the annulation of exceptional flights coming to Morocco on December 28, last year.

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The decision has divided the Moroccan Ministry of Health and the National Scientific Committee - the two authorities tasked with tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Committee members have joined the virtual protest against the policy which they view has having no merit. In a statement to The New Arab, a source from the committee said the closure was never attended to avoid Morocco, the highly infectious variant. “The closure also does not protect us from any setback. It was time to be prepared for the new wave, thus there’s no need to keep our borders closed;” added the source.

Moroccans were eagerly awaiting for Prime minister Aziz Akhannouch to end the “borders' stalemate,” however Akhannouch’s statements were insufficient. “There is a scientific committee and a ministerial committee that take decisions that involve us and that we will follow,” said the PM in his first interview after his party’s victory in the September 8 elections.

These contradictory statements have fuelled anger on social media. In posts, Moroccans comment on their waning mental health, the negative impact on tourism and how this will further plunge the country into an economic quagmire.  

“Can we be healthy without a loaf of bread? Isn't dignity based on the integrity of the body with work that ensures daily sustenance?” Aziz Ibrahimi posted on Facebook, Ibrahimi has been advocating for the borders opening since last year.

Morocco’s tourism revenues dropped by 58.1 % at the end of June 2021 to  MAD 8.8 billion ($978 million).The number of hotel bookings also fell from 25.2 million in 2019 to just seven million the following year. December's closure,  during the winter holiday season, is said to be yet another nail in the coffins.

Facing criticism, Morocco’s government has approved on January, 14 an emergency plan worth MAD 2 billion ($216 million) to support the tourism industry, including the extension of the payment of a lump sum compensation of MAD 2,000 ($216) during the first quarter of 2022 for all employees in the tourism sector, tourist carriers and classified restaurants.

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Despite the promised aid, operators in the tourism sector in Marrakech - a well loved destination for international tourists - organized a sit-in to protest the government’s “blurry vision that has paralyzed the tourism sector and its various related sectors, affecting 70% of families in the city,” a statement said. 

Moroccan authorities' short notice opening-closing borders pushed also Irish airline "Ryanair"  to withdraw permanently from Morocco, starting from next May. The low-cost airline, a favourite for Moroccans, said the withdrawal decision came due to “Moroccan authorities’ lack of communication and unjustified decisions,” which costed the company huge losses.

Meanwhile, Moroccans hold out hope for a revival in tourism, as the government is expected to decide on the emergency situation on January 31, amid the growing protests and the new-recommended international perspective of coexisting with the virus.

Basma El Atti is The New Arab's correspondent from Morocco  

Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma