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Friday, February 25, 2011

Tourism In The Middle East And Magreb? Barely A Pulse

Arizona tourism went into the crapper as soon as violent extremists started running around the state with hate messages and unrestricted guns. Even Frommer warned the state is too dangerous to visit. I know Wisconsin is a popular tourist destination year round and I'm not sure if the right-wing turmoil in Madison is having any impact on the state's tourist industry-- not to mention the fried cheese curd and bratwurst makers. But some of the other areas where people are fighting for the human rights and dignity-- like Libya, Bahrain and Tunisia-- the tourist industry is dead in the water. Wikipedia's Libya Travel site starts with an ominous-looking warning sign: "WARNING: As of February 2011, Libya is in a severe state of political and civil crisis. Military, police and security forces are using deadly force in attempts to quell civil unrest in many parts of the country. Reports have emerged of thousands of people having been killed or seriously injured. If you are already in Libya, stay away from large public gatherings and try to gain independent and reliable information about the political and civil situation in your area. Try to organize a secure exit from Libya by contacting your country's embassy or their representatives either in Libya, your home country or neighbouring nations. The governments of many nations have issued formal travel warnings, research these warnings in depth before travelling to or moving about within Libya. Many nations have also recommended their citizens in Libya should leave the country immediately and some have managed to arrange evacuation flights or other means of travel. The situation is highly volatile, care and elevated situational awareness must be exercised at all times if attempting to move about or transit through effected areas of Libya." Not very alluring-- and a disaster for the country's small but developing tourist industry.

Morocco's tourist industry is far more developed-- and a crucial part of the country's economy. Tourism is way down as Europeans-- forget Americans-- wonder if the country is safe or likely to be the scene of violent protests like the rest of the Maghreb.
As the Egyptian and Tunisian destinations were collapsing, travel agents all over Europe were offering Morocco and the Canary Islands as alternatives for cancelled trips.

In Germany, Europe's greatest market, travel agents in late January and early February openly campaigned for Morocco as the safe and quiet alternative to Tunisia and Egypt in local media. Similar campaigns were registered in the UK, Scandinavia and France.

Consequently, flights to Morocco from Europe over the last few weeks have been fuller than ever during a low season. Morocco today published record arrivals for January, and the growing Moroccan tourism industry was making important extra revenues.

But these short heydays are now over. Each and every day, international media are overflowing with reports from the protest wave spreading to new countries. There is a widespread impression it is only a question of time for unrest and revolution to reach Morocco.

An American tourist spends something like 8 times what other tourists spend... and Americans have been the first to cancel their trips to anyplace remotely dangerous-sounding. Even now, with Europeans beginning to trickle back into Egypt, Americans are booking trips to Hawaii, Las Vegas and Bermuda instead.
Egypt earns upwards of $13 billion a year from its tourism industry -- an integral part of the nation's struggling economy.

But Masood Ahmed, director of the International Monetary Fund's Middle East and Central Asia Department, told a press conference last week the decline in tourism was likely to seriously hurt Egypt.

"The recent popular protests in Egypt will definitely have a short-term economic cost," Ahmed said. "We will see tourism and investment going down, and certainly the 5.5% growth rate that we saw in the last two quarters of 2010 will likely be considerably lower in the next six months."

And that decline in tourism isn't likely to change anytime soon. The U.S. State Department is still warning Americans to stay away from Egypt for "non-essential travel."

"Due to continuing uncertainties regarding the restructuring of Egyptian government institutions, the security situation remains unresolved," the department said in a travel warning posted on its website. "Until the redeployment of Egyptian civilian police is fully restored, police response to emergency requests for assistance or reports of crime may be delayed."

The U.S. government has also ordered the departure of all nonemergency personnel from Egypt. Cairo is one of the largest duty stations in the world, with thousands of U.S. employees administering economic and military aid.

But British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Egypt this week-- and his government is allowing British tourists to return to Sharm el-Sheik and the Red Sea resorts. So has Germany's government.

Today's NY Times puts on a brighter face, pointing out that Tahrir Square has become a new tourist destination.
Many tourist sites in and around Cairo are open again-- from the pyramids to the Khan el-Khalili souk to the Egyptian Antiquities Museum. But these days the most sought-after photo is not one of Tutankhamen’s mask but of Tahrir (Liberation) Square, a mammoth traffic circle the world had stared at for three weeks on television. Named after Egypt’s 1919 liberation from the British, Tahrir Square is a top destination for many of the Western tourists who have begun trickling into Egypt in recent days.

“It is amazing what has happened here,” said Aart Blijdorp, a 60-year-old civil servant from the Netherlands. He had flown in a few days earlier to attend the seven-day anniversary of Mr. Mubarak’s resignation, a gathering on Tahrir Square that the protesters hope will become a weekly Friday event to remind the current military government of their continuing demands for reform. “The optimism in the air was so apparent on the news, I had to come feel it for myself,” Mr. Blijdorp said, after introducing me to two young protesters he had met in the square. They had become Mr. Blijdorp’s tour guides around Cairo.

“We have been taking him around because he is traveling on his own,” said Omar Ahmed, 23, a civil engineer, adding that they were off to the Citadel, but that Mr. Blijdorp wanted to come back to Tahrir Square first.

“The good news is he is seeing everything fast, because no one is here,” said Hamdy Mohammed, 24, a law student. “But we want tourists to come back because it is a new Egypt now.”

“So far, Tahrir is my favorite place,” said Mr. Blijdorp, who had visited the Pyramids the day before.

The allure of visiting Egypt at this moment hasn’t been lost on some tour operators. For example, Akorn Destination Management (, which bills itself as an organization that delivers “inspirational travel experiences,” is offering “Tahrir Square-- Egypt Is Making History,” a trip that includes a Nile cruise, a walk through Tahrir Square and a stay at the Semiramis InterContinental Hotel, which is near the square.

As Rick Zeolla, the general manager of the Cairo Marriott, where Christiane Amanpour and many other journalists stayed, put it: “Right now Egypt is like having a fast pass at Disney. People should come over.”

Amr Badr, managing director of Abercrombie & Kent in Egypt and the Middle East, believes now is a unique time to visit Egypt and see history in the making. “I think people will immediately feel the energy,” he said, noting that the streets are now cleaner than they have been in recent memory, and that Tahrir Square has become a “living exhibit-- a sort of Speaker’s Corner” in Egypt that they plan to promote. Egyptians, he added, are feeling a newly found sense of pride in their country. “If Egypt was good before, it will be better now,” he said.

Michael Koth, general manager of the Semiramis InterContinental, said his clients are no longer asking for a “Nile view” room but a Tahrir view. “The early guests we are seeing are more independent, well seasoned and globally focused travelers,” Mr. Koth said.

Mali was probably more "dangerous" when nothing was especially going on, politically speaking. Here below is a photo I took of Roland on rue Guide Mouamar El Kaddafi in Timbuktu. Last week we were in Guadalajara, right after a terrorist attack that left nearly 50 people dead or wounded. Everyone we knew told us not to go. Yet the place seemed safer than New York or L.A.-- and the prices were down and the crowds much smaller, making everything easier. We love Guadalajara anyway, but it was even better with all the wooses scared off. Nothing would get me to Libya 'til the Qaddafis are dead-- which could be weeks away-- but we're already thinking about a trip there soon. Arizona... not so much.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Live Blogging A Quick Getaway To Guadalajara

Who knew this weekend was going to be like 1848 all over again-- only in Bahrain, Libya, Wisconsin, Algeria, Ohio and Yemen? I just figured it would be another sleepy 3 day weekend and I could take the 3 hour Alaska Air flight direct from LAX to Guadalajara, Mexico's peaceful, sophisticated second biggest city (metro area population- 4.5 million, bigger than any U.S. city other than NYC).

It's a manufacturing town and a major cultural center, even above and beyond being the home of mariachi music. And there's incredible shopping in the suburb of Tlaquepaque. We were a little nervous about going because the drug wars seem to have arrived with a bang last week-- dozens of people were wounded or killed in a gun and grenade attack not far from our hotel. Turns out the drug wars aren't new to Guadalajara at all. In 1993 the Archbishop, Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, was murdered in his car-- 14 gunshot wounds-- at the airport by members of the San Diego Logan Heights Gang working for the Tijuana Cartel or the Carlos Salinas government; no one knows for sure.

I just found 300 pesos in my foreign currency jar from the last time I was in Mexico. That's great because it costs 220 pesos (fixed price, monopoly) to go from the airport to downtown. The roundtrip flight was $389. My plan is to live blog the whole trip on this page. Hasta mañana-- or luego. Here's the weather:

First Night In Guadalajara

It was a pretty easy trip, nice and smooth. One lady across the aisle had a seizure and a real tarted up one behind her was reading the Sarah Palin book. If there's room in first class they let you upgrade for$50. There was and we did. Airport formalities were a snap, weather's balmy, taxis plentiful and the hotel-- Quinta Real-- as welcoming as last time we stayed here. Tlaquepaque mañana.

Since there was that grenade attack just a week ago I thought it would be prudent to check the news updates for Guadalajara and see what was up... gay beer was the first thing to show itself-- for people who think Corona and Michelob are too straight.
Minerva, a small brewery in Jalisco, Mexico, believes its "artisan honey-ales" will appeal to gay men and lesbians whose refined tastes have been put on the back burner by beer manufacturers.

...The brewery has two beers on offer: Salamandra and Purple Hand, which refers to the famous gay rights protest in San Francisco in 1969. Wyler says the drinks' labels can be removed and worn as a symbol of pride. (Gay or straight, is wearing a beer label on your sleeve ever a good idea?)


The hotel has nice hard comfortable beds and last night was the first time in months I slept past 6AM. The free breakfast buffet alone is worth the price of admission. There's almost nothing-- short of chop suey-- you could want to eat that isn't there. After eating too much, we spent the day wandering around Tlaquepaque, browsing in the very uncrowded shops and galleries. I wound up buying a sculpture (right) by Sergio Bustamante-- odd for me since I've been busy reverse-collecting (giving stuff away and speaking with museums about who gets what after I'm no longer among the quick). Anyway, they don't like bargaining in Tlaquepaque-- it's nothing like Morocco-- but if you're persistent you can get 10% off and if they feel you're serious and willing to pay cash, 15% is easy and needs no histrionics. We ate at one of the highly rated restaurants in town, Casa Fuerte, and the stuff we ordered was great but the salsa and chips that came free had no taste at all. Prices are good here for everything. The food was cheap and so were the taxis. Tonight we're going for a long walk from the hotel into downtown-- like 3 miles I estimate-- and we're going to try a vegetarian restaurant that's I remember from last time being real good: Zanahoria.

...And later that night. Zanahoria was closed so we went to the best place in town, Sacromonte, which we remembered from last time we were here. Actually Roland remembered it. I remember nada. We weren't that hungry so we had some delicious avocado apetizers and called it a night. People look very fit here-- except the kids. The kids are obese. In fact there's an obesity epidemic among Mexican children. Guess who's influence they're coming under? U.S. has the highest percentage of obese people in the world and now Mexico is numero dos.
Obesity is a disease that affects the United States, but it also has risen in Mexico, and a UH professor recently named as a Fulbright Scholar is helping to combat the disease in both countries.

Rebecca Lee, an assistant professor of nutrition and director of UH’s Texas Obesity Research Center, will soon take her expertise to Guadalajara, Mexico, to assist in further discovery of this disease.

...Research conducted during Lee’s time in Mexico will also aim to document and define obesity in a better fashion and determine possible environmental factors that contribute to a population’s obesity problem.

“Recent data suggest that the problem of obesity has emerged in Mexico, particularly among youth,” Lee said in the release.

While the US has the highest obesity rate worldwide, studies have cited Mexico as having the second highest, Lee said.

And we're off to Tonalá now-- a market suburb like Tlaquepaque that I had missed in the past.

Tonalá may not be as refined and high end but it's just as good as Tlaquepaque, espcially on market days, Sundays and Thursdays, when there are hundreds and hundreds of stalls selling stuff. Much of the stuff, in fact, that is sold in Tlaquepaque is made in Tonalá. After we got back we had dinner in the most highly recommended vegetarian restaurant, Zanahoria, which wasn't that far of a walk from our hotel. Nice folks run it and the food was ok, but it's vegetarian cooking circa 1970. The world has moved on-- way beyond.

Our last night in town we ate in a restaurant I really want to suggest you don't miss if you're ever in Guadalajara. After spending a full day exploring the central historic core with it's spectacular cathedral and public buildings-- you see why the city is called "the Florence of Mexico"-- we made it to the most beautiful-looking restaurant we kept passing everyday, Cocina 88. The look of the place in a grand old mansion is inviting enough but the Peruvian food is about the best I've eaten in Guadalajara. I had cerviche and then a coconut-crushed mahi mahi that I can't stop thinking about.

Back to the historic core again for a minute, especially since it's what draws so many tourists, especially Mexican tourists, to Guadalajara. Dr Atl (Gerardo Murillo) was born in Guadalajara and is widely known as the father of modern Mexican muralism but the most outstanding mural in town comes from another Jalisco native, José Clemente Orozco. The Government Palace has some of his most incredible work and I'm posing (above) and Roland (below) in front of Man of Fire, the breathtaking depiction of early 1800s freedom fighter Father Miguel Hidalgo on the broad sweeping staircase going to the second floor. And on the third floor is a later mural in the state assembly, The People and Its Leaders. His work, of course, made us think about the struggle working men and women are going through this week in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Wisconsin, Ohio, Algeria, Yemen...

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Hopefully All The Violence Will Be Over Before We Get To Guadalajara Next Week

Roland and I really do try to avoid violence when we travel. I tend to shy away from places where tourists are being targeted or from places with sustained random violence. But the best laid plans, as they say... We wound up arriving in Egypt in 1997 the day after over 60 tourists were murdered by terrorists in Luxor (which is exactly where we were going). We were practically the only tourists in the country-- and had an amazing time. We were in civil war-torn Sri Lanka a few days after rebels shot and killed dozens of people at a shrine. Roland was fascinated by all the blood still on the stones. Once I stood with my hands over my head surrounded by screaming Afghan militiamen pointing automatic weapons at me for an hour and we've had interesting scrapes with red shirts in Thailand-- a restaurant we always eat in was mortared-- and with pissed off Palestinians on the West Banks, Turkish bomb throwers in Istanbul and anti-royal Maoists in Nepal. "Hey dude, I'm on your side when it comes to monarchies," doesn't cut it.

But this month I was just looking for a restful, no-drama easy trip after the stress of being in Morocco for a month. I picked Flores, an island town on Lago Petén Itzá in northern Guatemala, near the ancient-- and glorious and alluring-- Mayan ruins at Tikal. The airlines make it so inconvenient to get to, with their selfish, money-grubbing hub-cities policies that a trip that should just take a few hours entailed a whole day of inconvenient travel going and coming, eating up a minimum of two full days out of the 5 we had. So we decided on a town with direct flights from L.A. that we've been to before and really love: Guadalajara in Mexico. And much safer than anywhere else in Mexico-- until now. Banditos opened fire in a restaurant today killing half a dozen people, wounding 37-- and just down the street from a hotel we had been considering. Guadalajara is Mexico's second biggest city with almost 4-and-a-half million people. Lately a drug gang turf war has broken out. This is a bummer for Guadalajara since it's supposed to host the Pan American Games in October.

Last week the State Department warned about driving in the western (hipster) part of the city at night.
The U.S. consulate in Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city, posted a message on its website Thursday saying that it had prohibited U.S. diplomatic personnel from traveling the highway to the airport at night, and that it "recommends that U.S. citizens consider similar precautions."

On Tuesday, assailants hurled grenades, burned vehicles and blocked several Guadalajara streets and highways in seven near-simultaneous attacks that injured a policeman and two transportation workers. Such tactics have been used by cartels in the past to aid their escapes from police.

The attacks were staged by drug gangs, possibly in retaliation for the arrests of their members, said Fernando Guzman Perez, interior secretary of Jalisco state, where Guadalajara is located.

Tlaquepaque is our favorite part of Guadalajara. I was surprised the guide is wearing a bullet-proof vest in the video:

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Whither The Egyptian Tourist Industry?

The #1 concern among one subset of Americans in regard to the revolution against brutal, grinding dehumanizing tyranny in Egypt has nothing to do with Egypt's 80,000,000 mostly impoverished people, It's all about Israel. Well, relax... Mohamed ElBaradei was on Meet the Press today and he vows that the peace treaty is rock solid. And then there's the tourism-- which accounts for at least 7% of Egypt's GDP. Americans didn't get as crazy about Mubarak thugs riding through Tahrir Square killing peaceful protesters as they did about Mubarak thugs breaking into the Egyptian Museum on the same square breaking some artifacts. "People can be replaced," one American told me. These treasures can't." I wanted to vomit.

The Egyptian economy is incredibly bound up with tourism-- and the balmy winter is the high season. In a country with rampant, systemic unemployment, one job in 8 is a tourist industry job. Since the protests began, a million tourists have left the country and Egypt has lost at least a billion dollars in evaporated tourist revenues. That's massive. I was shocked that until there was actual blood flowing in the streets both the U.S. State Department and its British counterpart were working to bolster Egypt's economy by falsely claiming tourism was perfectly normal and non-problematic. In a matter of one day, they went from "Everything's wonderful; have a good time and be careful of sunburn" to "Get to the airport for an emergency flight out immediately." I was shocked that both the U.S. and British governments would put Egypt's tourist industry ahead of the safety of their own citizens.

Today's L.A. Times reports that despite the catastrophic effect of the drop off in tourist revenues "some Egyptians whose livelihoods depend on the tourist trade are sympathetic to the protesters' cause."
In the fragrant confines of the California Perfumes Palace, within view of the Giza pyramids, Ahmed Ali uncorked his scented wares-- "Try the Cleopatra oil!"-- and talked of the need for change.

"It's bad for us," he said of the tumult. "But it's a happy time for the people. In the end, Egypt will be a stronger country, a better country."

Egypt's vice president, Omar Suleiman, told state television last week that the ongoing unrest had cost Egypt $1 billion in tourism revenue. Some analysts thought that estimate was a conservative one.

The State Department advised U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Egypt and to leave as soon as they could do so safely. Over the last six days, about 2,300 Americans have crowded aboard evacuation flights organized by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Commercial flights, which were disrupted at the height of the turmoil, are flying in nearly empty and flying out full.

In some parts of the country, the events unfolding violently in the capital seem a world away, and tourist operators would like their clientele to think of them that way.

At one hotel in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh, guests noticed that a few days into the protests, a big flat-screen television disappeared from a coffee nook just off the opulent lobby. Waiters explained it was broken.

The tourist economy has bounced back from hard times before. In 1997, Islamist gunmen massacred dozens of foreign tourists in Luxor, causing an initially dramatic drop-off in visitor traffic, but the industry eventually recovered. In April 2005, a suicide bomber struck near a souk in Cairo popular with visitors from abroad, killing three foreign tourists.

This morning the Associated Press chronicled the crumbling state of Egyptian tourism over the past 12 days, pointing out that major carriers like Delta and even EgyptAir have stop flying between the U.S. and Cairo and that travelers have been canceling their plans en masse.
Travelers faced the same question as Rob Solow, who is booked on an Egyptian getaway this month with his wife. “Is it going to be an issue where we are going to have to watch our backs the whole time?”

The Yorktown Heights, N.Y., couple aren't sure if they'll make the trip. But Solow said he won't be going to the Middle East in the future: “I just think it's a troubled part of the world that's not necessary to visit.”

The timing of the violence and political uncertainty couldn't be worse-- winter is the high season for visitors. Large tour operators such as Gate 1 Travel and cruise companies including Norwegian Cruise Line have canceled Egyptian stops. Tours elsewhere in the Middle East haven't been canceled, but travel agents are getting a steady stream of inquiries about the status of trips.

“The ones who haven't booked are holding off and the ones who have are trying to get out of it,” says Blake Fleetwood, owner of several Cook Travel businesses in New York.

...Jordanian economist Hani Horani said: “Foreign tourists look at the Middle East as one entity and they will avoid traveling to an area they consider unstable.”

One view is that Egyptian tourism-- which probably started a couple hundred years before Christ when Greek travelers made their way to ancient monuments-- has an uncertain future. Another view takes the exact opposite view-- that this is a good time to go to Egypt-- or at least certain parts of it. In 1997 Roland and I arrived in Cairo the day after dozens of Swiss, Japanese and other tourists were hunted down and massacred by extremists inside the Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri right across the Nile from Luxor, the second most important tourist area after the Pyramids and Sphinx complex at Giza. We pretty much had the whole tourist infrastructure to ourselves and it was awesome. But now, all the important historical and cultural sites are shuttered. If you like surf and sun and cheap, gaudy hotels in a cultural wilderness, though...
Contrary to popular belief, tourism is not dead in all of Egypt. The situation in the popular Red Sea destinations of Sharm el Sheikh, Hurghada, Taba, and Marsa Alam remains “safe” with hotels operating “business as usual” according to Thomson Travels.

Although the British Foreign Office has advised its nationals against all but essential travel to Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and Luxor, British tour operators offered a string of promotions this week on holidays in Egypt's Red Sea resorts which remain popular with holidaymakers despite unrest elsewhere in the country stressing that they are far from the main flashpoints.

Thomas Cook has a one-week holiday in an all-inclusive, four-star Sharm el-Sheikh hotel at £319. First Choice is offering a two-week holiday in the resort from £359 flying from London. Thomson has flights seats at £79 on a one-way flight from Edinburgh to Sharm el-Sheikh, and return flights from Manchester at £159 leaving Wednesday for 10 days in the resort. Other return flights from Britain to Red Sea destinations were priced at £149 with some flights nearly full.

The two biggest tour operators in Britain, Thomas Cook and TUI Travel, which runs Thomson and First Choice, offered several deals to the Red Sea. A spokeswoman for TUI Travel said that Sharm el-Sheikh "operates like a country in itself," run separately from the rest of Egypt, with one main road in and low unemployment due to the tourism industry. TUI Travel also said that there had been no incidents related to the uprising in the Red Sea resorts, where it was "business as usual."

"The atmosphere is quiet and calm, with Sharm el-Sheikh's main resort of Naama Bay bustling as people continue to enjoy their holidays as normal," the spokeswoman said. “The curfew is only imposed in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. It is not being enforced in any Red Sea resort to which we operate. Booking conditions to Sharm el Sheikh, Marsa Alam, Taba and Hurgharda remain as normal”-- in other words, if you cancel your trip, you will lose most or all of your money. Thomas Cook is taking the same line, saying “no tourist areas at the Red Sea have been affected in any way by the recent demonstrations.

I wouldn't trust any of this as far as I could throw it. Of course, there is another reason some intrepid travels might want to go to Egypt now-- to witness the rebirth of a great nation as it struggles for its dignity and for its future generations against the forces of tyranny. You can't order one of those packages up at Thomas Cook everyday.

UPDATE: OK, Mubarak's Gone, Now What?

Egypt is bracing for a cratering economy but one tour operator, probably an optimist, said he expects "a return to normalcy by the end of the month." Others say March and some say April... or October.
Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported monuments and museums around Cairo were deserted. The Pyramids of Giza reopened to tourists on Wednesday after a 12-day closure, but few people came to visit.

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo-- next to Tahrir Square in Cairo, where many of the most heated political protests have taken place-- remained shuttered, though officials vowed to reopen "after the strike is finished."

Egypt relies heavily on the tourism industry. Last year, the country had 14.7 million visitors, who generated $11 billion in revenue, according to the Egyptian Tourist Authority in New York. That number is about 11 percent of the total gross domestic product for the country.

Before Mubarak's resignation, tourism officials had predicted a quick turn around once the political turmoil quiets down.

"Looking back to previous crises that hit this industry in the last decade, one can tell that the current crisis, despite all its negative effects on our business, will be and should be the fastest to fade and the least harmful of all," says ElSayed Khalifa, consul-director of the ETA in New York.

Mohamed Kamel, chief executive officer of the Red Sea resort builder Egyptian Resorts Co., told Bloomberg he was optimistic that tourism in Egypt would rebound quickly.

"People are now looking at Egypt as a more competitive destination because of the exchange rate," Kamel tells Bloomberg. "And during crises, more concessions are made to tourists to get business jumpstarted."

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Will Morocco Be The Next Domino To Fall? Or The One After That?

This morning many eyes turned nervously towards Jordan, where King Abdullah, reacting to demonstrations blaming government corruption for high food prices and a horrifying standard of living disparity between the rich and poor, fired one tool (Prime Minister Samir Rifai) and replaced him with another (Marouf Bakhit, a military guy). But it is more likely that the next explosion, in the wake of Mubarak's regime collapsing, will be further west along the Mediterranean, Morocco.

I hope I'm not boring everybody with all the talk about Morocco, which, I realize, most Americans haven't been terribly aware of after it became the very first country in the world-- yes, even before France-- to recognize our revolution and our independence from the tyranical British superpower (December, 1777). I first went there is 1969 when I was just a kid and I've been writing about it ever since. I lost count of how many times I've been there after a dozen and I've yet to meet a Moroccan who's been to as many places in Morocco as I have. (I can always pull Sidi Ifni or the Erg Chigaga dunes south of M'hamid out of my hat.) I just spent most of December in Marrakech, where I rented a riad next to King Mohammed VI's palace in the medina. Most of the traffic that comes to thisl blog comes from people on search engines who find the post Is Morocco A Safe Place To Visit?. The short answer to the question about Morocco being safe is YES. But in light of the revolutionary spirit coursing through the Arab world, especially in North Africa, we need to take a look again. Can tranquil, scenic, touristic, ever more cosmopolitan Morocco go the way of Tunisia and Egypt? Short answer is the same: YES!

I didn't want to be rude to the neighbor but, like I wrote, Mohammed VI, when you strip away the 21st Century p.r. veneer, is an authoritarian despot, not all that much different from any king or Emperor or sultan or tsar. In fact, one thing I noticed a lot-- and eventually started questioning people about-- is that many Moroccans sounded exactly like pre-Revolutionary Russians believing in only their Little Tsar knew what evil the terrible men around him were perpetrating against his people! Mohammed calls all the shots in the family business, a business that owns at least a piece of almost everything, from the big hotels to the drug trafficking bonanza that a Wikileaks cable from a U.S. diplomat asserts is the only bigger source of income in the kingdom than the tourist industry. And remember, it was the release of wikileaks cables that opened the flood gates against the dictators in Tunisia and Egypt as well.

Even members of the royal family believe Morocco's monarchy can't go unscathed by what is sweeping the rest of North Africa right now. The King's cousin, Prince Moulay Hicham, 3rd in line to the throne and popularly known as the "Red Prince," because of his criticisms of the monarchy, said "the political liberalisation launched in the 1990s after Mohammed succeeded his authoritarian father Hassan II had virtually come to an end, and reviving it while still avoiding radical pressures would be 'a major challenge'." Everyone is counting on the spiritual bond between THE KING and the people, a bond, they hope, makes him different from a grubby usurper like Ben Ali or Mubarak or Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika. On the other hand, dissident journalist Aboubakr Jamai wrote in France's Nouvel Observateur that "If Morocco goes up, the disparities in wealth are such that the rebellion will be much bloodier than in Tunisia."

Afrol News appears to be as anti-monarchial and "down with tyranny" as we are here. This week, with Egypt exploding, they seemed to try stirring things up a little for Mohammed who, they reported, was off in one of his fabulous palaces... in France, plotting, no double, contingencies in case any radicals decided it was time to follow the example of Tunisia and Egypt and throw off the chains of oppression and kleptocracy.
Discontent is ample in Morocco, the poorest, least developed North African nation, and many are inspired by developments in Egypt. Meanwhile, Morocco's King Mohammed VI rests in his French luxury chalet.

Morocco so far has been spared from larger protesting groups as those in Tunisia and Egypt, much thanks to the King's quick reversal of boosting prices for basic foods. The same move proved a good assurance for authorities in neighboring Algeria.

But discontent is very widespread in Morocco. Despite an economic boom over the last years and some careful reforms ordered by King Mohammed VI-- most prominently regarding gender equality and education-- Morocco remains the poorest country in North Africa, with least employment opportunities and the lowest literacy rate.

The King, claiming to descend from the Prophet Mohammed, has an almost divine role in Morocco. Very few dare to criticise him, even in the mildest form.

Among the Arab majority, loyalty to the King is great, while the government-- appointed by the King-- and age-old ruling "Makhzen" class-- controlling the administration, police, army and much of business-- are the popular focus of hatred. In the streets of Casablanca, it is often said that the King is honest and wants to rule the country well, but the Makhzen is corrupting everything.

Minorities, however, to a wider degree dare to blame the King for their mischief. This includes large parts of the indigenous and disadvantaged Berber people. Estimates of the Berber population wary from 20 to 60 percent of the Moroccan total, with official estimates being the lowest. Unemployment is highest among Berber youths, of which many view the Arab King as a foreign imposer.

...As the tourist market in all North Africa now is crumbling-- many travellers fear Morocco could be next-- the kingdom's greatest growth and employment sector could soon be strongly impacted. A sudden growth in unemployment due to falling tourist arrivals could spark revolt.

Blogging from Fes, Matt Schumann is a Fulbright Scholar and English teacher at the S.M. Ben-Abdellah University, a graduate of Rice University and an incredibly well-informed and very perceptive observer of the Moroccan street, far more so than anyone you're going to ever hear on the utterly clueless CNN or the ideologically sociopathic Fox News. Last week he wrote about being in Morocco and watching the Moroccans watch the developments unfolding in Egypt. His conclusion, though, is that Morocco is immune to the upheavals sweeping the Arab world. I disagree but I want to offer his arguments, since they make a great deal of sense and include important information we'll need to look at when the revolution does, inevitably, come to Morocco.
It's been strange to be in Morocco during all of this. There's no lack of information. When you walk into a cafe, people are watching coverage of Egyptian protesters burning police vehicles or tearing down posters of Hosni Mubarak. But these images and ideas don't seem to be penetrating. A glance through two of the biggest newspapers, As-Sabah and Al-Masa', lead you to believe that the protests are only tangentially relevant to Moroccans. There are no attempts to apply Tunisians' and Egyptians' grievances to a Moroccan context. On Facebook, my students have posted pictures of the Egyptian protesters along with words of support and solidarity, and then proclaim their love for Morocco's King Muhammad VI. How can you identify with the protesters of two revolutions against authoritarian governments and still do that?

Why have the events in Tunisia and Egypt failed to generate the same reaction in Morocco as they have elsewhere in the Arab world?

Reading reports from the past weeks has made it clear to me that life for the average Moroccan is very different than that of a Tunisian or an Egyptian. Yes, Morocco is a poor country with high unemployment. The GDP per capita is significantly lower than Egypt's and nearly half that of Tunisia. Yet, the poverty is not oppressive. Life necessities are cheap in Morocco. People are poor but do not starve. The Moroccan government also tolerates "underground economic activities" which provide money and support for many young, uneducated Moroccans. The most notable of these is the drug trade, which according to WikiLeaks, generates more money than tourism, the largest sector of the Moroccan economy.

A second, key difference, concerns education. As one commentator pointed out, Tunisia is an exception in the Arab world in that it has a large, educated middle class. The middle class' dissatisfaction with the country's economic prospects fueled the protests that eventually led to Ben Ali's downfall. Egyptians, while not nearly as wealthy as Tunisians, are similarly educated. Both countries post literacy rates in the 70s and both protests movements have utilized social (especially Tunisia) and print media (especially Egypt) for organizational purposes. Morocco is a completely different story.

At best, 50% of Moroccans are literate and many well-educated Moroccans are ex-pats living in Europe or North America. While this may seem insignificant, I think it's a huge factor. Moroccans' illiteracy hampers the spread of information in general, and would definitely impede the organization of any type of protest movement. Additionally, the Moroccans who identify the most with Tunisia and Egypt don't live in Morocco. They've already exercised their discontent by leaving the country... [T]here is no credible opposition to the King [inside Morocco].

Morocco is a parliamentary monarchy that has a prime minister, political parties and elections. But in reality, it's something else. Parliament and the lesser bodies of government are where corrupt officials take bribes and appoint their sons- and daughters-in-law to influential posts. This corruption is obvious and derided by the Moroccan people. It's not uncommon for a Moroccan to say that the best way to make money in the country is to get into politics, but that you can only do that if you know the right people.

The King is seen as the only credible member of government despite his overwhelming and unquestionable political powers. And there's good reason for this. Royal initiatives, like infrastructure development and some social reforms, are completed on time and relatively efficiently. In other words, he gets things done when other Moroccan politicians don't. Combine that with the legacy of the Alaouite Dynasty, which has ruled Morocco for nearly four hundred years, and Muhammad VI is seen less as a despot and more as a benevolent and beloved monarch.

Now it's true that the King has the power to end the corruption that plagues parliament, the police and the military. Allowing his political opponents to profit in their subordinate positions decreases their desire for change. Additionally, their corruption draws the ire and attention of the people. So while his policies may leave something to be desired in the eyes of some Moroccans, the alternatives are much much worse.

The commentator who describes Tunisia as an exception in the Middle East may be eating his words in the next few days depending on Egypt's outcome. This doesn't mean Moroccans are happy with the state of affairs in their country. Poverty, unemployment, education, and political freedom are just a few issues that Moroccans feel must be addressed. But for now, the situation does not seem dire.

More than anything, Moroccans love stability. This is why they love the King. They tolerate the political and social status quo because it still meets their needs and because they don't have to worry about what tomorrow will bring. Because of this mindset, I don't think radical change is anything many Moroccans feel is necessary. Speaking to a Moroccan friend he said that while things here are not good, they are getting better. "Maybe five or ten years from now, but not now," he added. As long as this attitude persists, Morocco will stay stable.

Everybody loves stability. But it costs Morocco and awful lot to keep the king-- much more than he's worth, not just in my estimation but in the estimation of more and more people. When Egypt falls and things get ramped up in another country, Mohammed VI is going to be very happy his family's corporation has all the billions of dollars they've stolen from the people of Morocco separate from the state's funds. Like the rest of the kleptocrats, they and their spawn will be living on it for generations-- in other countries.