Opinion

Morocco: K. O. in the ports

Operation Marhaba

For the millions of Moroccans living in Europe, returning home is both a pleasure and a real struggle. For those who have decided to fly - and who can afford it - Royal Air Maroc has strengthened its air routes and made additional aircraft and routes available linking cities in the north and south with several key European destinations. In July, four SmartLynx Airlines aircraft were chartered for this purpose, covering 11 new routes. Cities such as Oujda, Nador and Fez have increased their air capacity and 1,400 additional flights with a capacity of 220,000 seats have been made available to travellers since the beginning of the month. Operation Seduction is back. After a border closure that lasted too long, Morocco is marking a timid recovery. Many hotels are full since the easing of restrictions, even if the state of health emergency and curfew remain in place.

In these uncertain times, adaptations and changes are made on a daily basis, and government communication is piecemeal.

While Royal Air Maroc has been able to do its part, the maritime routes remain untamed and insufficient, and a real headache for the authorities in these times of COVID.

First, crossings from Spanish ports have been suspended. Estimated at 800,000 people, Moroccans in Spain have felt excluded from returning home this year. But their setbacks go back several years. Already in 2019, the price hikes of Spanish carriers across the Strait of Gibraltar had spoiled the joy of the return of these annual travellers. For a family of five, for example, it cost 500 euros compared to 250 euros in 2018. The anger of these Moroccans Residing Abroad (MRE) has continued to grow, but in the absence of a national flag, no complaints have been heard. 

Before the COVID-19 crisis, the daily flow of passengers between Tangier Med and Algeciras was 39,000, secured by eleven ships, in addition to four long-distance maritime lines per week (Tangier Med-Barcelona-Sete and Genoa), and nearly one and a half million MRE transited through the port of Tangier Med. Today, with the closure of the Spanish departure points, the French and Italian ports have been taken by storm. Morocco, which has no ship linking the two countries, has commissioned the Intershipping company to transport its nationals.

As a result of the cancellation of departures from Algeciras, the port of Sète is already saturated. Intershipping went so far as to announce the temporary suspension of ticket sales and the French police had to intervene in the boarding area to calm things down after clashes between passengers and maritime staff. The clashes occurred after the company cancelled tickets at the last minute.  Despite having a capacity of 2,000 passengers and 500 cars each, the night ferries are unable to meet the high demand from Moroccans this summer. Last June, the Tangier Med Port Authority boasted that it had signed short-term charter agreements for Tallink Grupp's Victoria I and Romantika. "The vessels will operate on international maritime routes between Morocco and France, and between Morocco and Italy between July and September 2021," Tallink said. Unfortunately, this offer remains insufficient and hundreds of Moroccans are still stuck in European ports. A situation which reopens the debate on the absence of a national flag, 14 years after the disappearance of Comanav and its privatisation under the CMA-CGM banner.

The Moroccan authorities are trying to appease the anger and have announced compensation for sea travel. According to the second article of decree n°21.4792, published in the official gazette, the amount of this compensation is set at 1,000 dirhams for tickets purchased for less than 250 euros. If the ticket price is more than 250 euros, a supplement of 5 dirhams will be added for each additional euro for the period from 15 June to 30 September. In addition, the reference prices for return tickets, with car, have been reduced to 995 euros for a family of four on long-distance routes and 450 euros on medium-distance routes, the order specifies.

The first arrivals are already here and are preparing for their holidays. Greetings to those still stuck in the ports of Sete and Genoa.