One of Morocco's top tourist destinations has become overrun with tourists and Instagrammers trying to get the perfect photo
- Tourism in Morocco is booming.
- The Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech, a landscape garden designed and cultivated by French artist Jacques Majorelle and later bought and restored by designer Yves Saint Laurent, is considered the top tourist destination in all of Morocco.
- On two recent visits, I found the once-peaceful gardens to be overrun run with tourists and Instagrammers trying to get the perfect photo of themselves in front of Majorelle's iconic blue buildings and plants.
- It shows how booming tourism and today's selfie culture can ruin a destination's charm.
I hate being a grouch. But sometimes, just sometimes, it's warranted.
Case in point: On a recent trip to Morocco, I decided to visit Majorelle Gardens, a once-peaceful place run roughshod by tourism.
Designed over the course of 40 years by French painter Jacques Majorelle and later bought and restored by French designer Yves Saint Laurent, the gardens are considered Marrkech's premier attraction. About 850,000 people visit the gardens each year, making it the most popular tourist attraction in all of Morocco.
A museum dedicated to Saint Laurent opened on the property in 2017 and has already become another major attraction.
The gardens should be a delight to visit. Located down a small side street in Marrakech, one can imagine that entering the inconspicuous doorway was once charming ... if it weren't for the lines of people stretching down the block at all times during the day.
Once I finally purchased a ticket and entered, I began to take a walk around the gardens. It is stuffed with cacti, palms, banana and coconut trees, and nearly 300 other plant species from five different continents that Majorelle cultivated with the help of Moroccan ethnobotanist Abderrazak Benchaâbane.
The garden's tight environs, covering two and a half acres, are no match for the number of tourists who make the pilgrimage. At every point in the gardens, I was jumping out of the way of a tour group or stopping to allow someone to compose a perfect selfie.
With all of the garden's fountains painted in stark primary colors, including a deep, cobalt blue trademarked by Majorelle, the location is chock full of Instagram-influencer-perfect backdrops. That is, if you can squeeze all of the people out of the frame.
Tourists and would-be influencers I observed seemed to take a few different tactics to make this happen. Some had their friends stand guard at a big enough radius to ensure their shot made the Gardens look utterly deserted. Others carefully chose less busy corners of the gardens to take their shot. Some huffed and pushed their way to an open spot. A few cursed when an unsuspecting visitor wandered into their perfect scene. In the choicest locations, like the colorful Moorish house and Berber-style building Majorelle built as a centerpiece, people waited in line to get their shot.
It's a strange part of millennial culture that, for many, travel today is more about turning your holiday into a Vogue cover shoot than it is about actually experiencing a location. Almost no one I saw at the Gardens, on a jam packed day no less, seemed to be taking in the exquisite design or the biodiversity of the gardens. Everyone either had a camera or a smartphone to their eye or was standing in front of the lens.
Perhaps that's as much a consequence as a cause of mass tourism. From January to October last year, Morocco welcomed over 10.5 million tourists, nearly a 10% jump from 2017, itself a record year. In 2017, Morocco welcomed 11.4 million tourists.
In recent years, Morocco has seen a surge of Chinese tourists, with visitors jumping from 43,000 in 2016 to around 120,000 through the first five months of 2018.
My host Abdu at Riad Djebel, a guesthouse in Marrakech, tried to coach me on the best times to visit Majorelle, noting that occasionally you can beat the tourist rush by getting there early in the morning or just before closing. But in the same breath, he admitted that it's pretty much impossible these days.
"It's lost much of its charm over the last few years," he said.
I tried both times, finding lines stretching around the block in the morning and the evening. Another riad host said that he wished the owners would limit the number of tourists in the gardens at any one time. I have to agree.
With so many tourists visiting Majorelle, it becomes impossible to enjoy the space as I imagine Majorelle and Saint Laurent intended - escaping the bustle of the souks with a peaceful stroll through nature. Today, it's as overrun as the medina from which one is trying to get a respite.
I guess the only thing left to do, then, is obvious: Take Instagram shots that make it look like you are enjoying a peaceful stroll.