6 September 2018 – Western women travelling in Morocco are often perplexed about their plans: they don't quite know whether it's safe or not.
So they're more cautious than they would be for a trip to, let’s say, Europe or even Southeast Asia.
Part of that comes from the lack of familiarity with Islamic countries, compounded by news cycles that equate Islam with danger and warn vaguely of terrorism "out there somewhere."
Visiting Morocco as a woman will open your eyes, make you marvel, and possibly irrevocably ensnare you.
What it shouldn’t do is scare you. Yes, terrorism can rear its ugly head, as can sexual harassment or assault, but the truth is it can do that anywhere.
This is a Muslim country.
Let’s get that out of the way.
All that means is that people have a religion that may be a bit different from yours.
And depending on where you’re from, people are probably a bit more conservative too.
That conservatism means you should consider maintaining a greater distance from men than you might at home. Say a man grasps your hand for a 'prolonged' handshake or grabs your shoulder or elbow. Where you’re from, that might be perfectly acceptable, but here, it’s out of line.
This level of familiarity is not the norm.
So beware the messages you send. Cultural differences are very real and your openness and friendliness may mean something completely different In Morocco.
While women are making great social and economic strides, this is still a male-dominated society. The country finally made violence toward women illegal in 2018, outlawing forced marriages along with harassment and sexual exploitation. The law is a step in the right direction.
Many other forces are at work trying to redress the bar for women and girls. In Marrakesh, for example, the UN is working hard to educate people about sexual harassment by training bus drivers, city officials and others to watch for and combat inappropriate behavior in public spaces.
Despite the good intentions, harassment happens often, as do sexually explicit comments and lewd hissing. You'll need a thick skin; ignore the comments and keep walking, and if you find avoiding eye contact difficult, slide on a pair of sunglasses, at least during the day.
If you happen to be light in coloring, you'll probably attract much more attention than if you are not, because you'll be different. Again, stereotypes about Western women abound, so be aware of the extra attention and move on.
Travel safety in Morocco is a common concern: this is still a male-dominated patriarchal society and women on their own can raise a brow or two, especially in rural areas.
That said, most well-traveled areas are quite safe and solo travel in Morocco is absolutely normal - although, if you've never traveled on your own before, you might try a more familiar destination, or coming with a friend. Verbal aggression can be tedious and even scary if you're not used to it, and sales people can be pushy to the extreme. Depending on where you're from, this will either not bother you at all or make you quite uncomfortable. What it shouldn't do is threaten you.
Of course there are reports of women being physically harassed and assaulted, but I'd like to put Morocco travel safety into perspective. Women are also harassed and attacked in Paris, Rome and Montreal, but according to UNODC, the UN agency that tracks crime, Morocco ranks at #64 out of 218 countries and territories for homicide, while the USA ranks at #108. The murder rate is at 2.2 per 100,000 inhabitants, like Norway's.
Rape, another crime that concerns us closely, is far lower in Morocco than, say, the US. Statistics show Morocco has around 5 rapes per 100,000 population, comparable to Spain or the Czech Republic, while in the US, that number is 30.
A good measure of your welcome and safety is the presence of other women.
In Tangier I was starving one night and walked through the old crooked streets desperate for a meal – every restaurant had only men but I eventually found a pastry shop filled with families. I wouldn’t normally walk around the medina solo at night, but in truth I have felt more threatened by drunken Friday night drivers in France than by men sitting in a café having a smoke.
Where there are tourists, there are police, especially since terrorists blew up a cafe in Marrakech in 2011, and just recently a law passed requiring policemen to carry firearms. Many police are in plainclothes and even if you don’t see them, they are watching you. Tourism is a major industry in Morocco and the last thing authorities want is bad publicity.
In the same vein, where there are tourists, there will be conmen (this is true the world over), from pickpockets to deft artists who grab your hand and apply some henna – and then insist on payment. Keeping your normal wits about you should help you avoid most of these situations.
Scams abound, so avoid talking to men who simply approach you out of the blue. Remember, Morocco is also a relatively poor country and there is high unemployment, which does affect attitudes (and prices, which are lower than Europe's). You’ll want those sunglasses so you can avoid the unwelcome advances of fake guides and hustlers, who will offer you tours (usually posing as students) and convince you to enter a shop where you'll almost be forced to buy something.
Morocco is also a destination for female sex tourism, with women visiting in order to find male companionship. Bear this in mind if you're approached by a younger man... he may be trying to sell you a whole lot more than a carpet.
Here's a tip. If you buy something in a tourist market, keep it within your sight. I bought a sheepskin which was taken to the back for wrapping, and when I got home it definitely wasn’t the lovely white one I’d bought.
Just say you’ll wrap it yourself later.
And you’ll find Moroccans extremely hospitable. An invitation to a family home should be treasured. In fact if you meet people who do invite you over, run, don’t walk. I have memories of family meals that will stay with me forever.
What should female tourists wear in Morocco? The good news is that in Morocco, travel clothing is pretty much whatever you want it to be. Still, here’s some general travel advice regarding dress.
In the more urban or touristy cities or resorts, you can dress like you would at home. I’d warn against overly suggestive clothing because accustomed as Moroccans are to tourists, the conservative attitudes most grew up with are still close to the surface.
In the countryside or in small villages, especially isolated ones, mores are even more traditional. You won’t go wrong anywhere if you cover your knees and shoulders, even in the most conservative areas.
I think the right word would be ‘appropriateness’: be comfortable but don’t push social boundaries too far. I’ve been to Morocco many times and simply followed that rule, everywhere. If you want specifics, think loose skirts (here are some travel skirts I recommend) or pants and a top that isn’t skin-tight or that reveals plenty of skin.
In terms of what counts as “Moroccan clothing,” women, especially younger ones, are indistinguishable from their Western counterparts – this isn’t Saudi Arabia. Women who work look like women in Europe or elsewhere, wearing dresses or suits that reflect the jobs they do. Some women do wear the traditional headscarf or hijab as well as a flowing djellaba, but these tend to be the more traditional.
So you’re armed with the right clothes and wondering about things to do in Morocco and how to get around.
I have taken pretty much every mode of transport here, from buses to planes to camels, and Morocco train travel can put many North American trains to shame.
The transport network is excellent and the roads are much better than during my first visit in 1980s, when crossing the Atlas was an adventure along strips so narrow and winding that in some places you had to stop to let oncoming traffic pass.
These days you can hop a train in a world-class train station, sit in air-conditioned comfort and let someone else do the worrying.
Wherever you go, beware of touts at the station though – they’ll try to carry your luggage (don’t lose sight of it!) and sell you onward tickets you don’t need, since you can buy them legally and easily from the ticket counter. For trains, especially on popular routes, I’d go buy my ticket the day before because trains fill up fast.
If you do drive (Can women drive in Morocco? Yes, of course they can!) you’ll be able to go almost anywhere on your own, although I’d look at the map very carefully: some roads wind through mountains for many miles without crossing a village and getting stranded solo in the middle of nowhere is not a recipe for successful travel, even if you do speak the language.
Distances may look short on a map - Morocco is the size of California - but once you’re driving, some roads feel as though they’ll never end. In winter, many are impassable.
If the thought of organizing everything yourself is daunting, there are Morocco tours that will show you the entire country or focus on a single destination.
There are plenty of excellent companies. I traveled to the desert with Desert Majesty, which is reasonably priced. Felicity in their Ouarzazate office knows what it takes to provide a service for women, and I had a private guide all the way but the agency organized all the details. (My favorite Morocco travel guide was Mohammed, who was full of history and humor.)
This was the best of both worlds, a group tour without the group.
Walking through a city souk or market may be a feast for the eyes but it will also be a tug on the wallet.
Colors, colors everywhere, scents that will carry you back centuries – from superb (street kebabs) to disgusting (leather tanneries) – and sights that you’ll cherish or detest, like the fine mosaics or monkeys on a leash.
Morocco is made for shopping: handmade Berber carpets and cloths, leather bags and jackets, foods and spices, metalwork and woodwork. You'll only be saved by size, with many of your ideal purchases too large to carry home. If you go slightly upmarket and visit a reputable shop, you’ll be able to get things shipped home and trust that it might actually get there.
When you’re in a market, know that quoted prices will be far higher than you need to pay and a Moroccan souk is one place where you must actively engage in the art of haggling. Do not accept the first price – merchants are just fishing, and they've honed their skills over generations . Don’t expect to get off lightly.
Many goods will be made by hand, and made right there, something you can’t often say anymore when you shop. Even so, just know that the Chinese have set up huge manufacturing plants in Morocco and many of the counterfeit items you’ll find in the market – like those nice $5 ICE watches – may not be made in China but certainly by China.
Several travelers mentioned to me that they had been shooed away when trying to take photos in some of the souks.
It happens. Merchants are there to sell, not to be a backdrop in our pictures.
I found that engaging people before sticking my camera into their face made a world of difference. Even if you don’t speak Arabic or French, most businesses in tourist areas will have someone who speaks a few words of English, at least enough to say hello and wave vaguely about the weather. A bit of conversation upped my photographic rate by about 500% and in some cases enriched me far more than a picture or two would have.
Sensitivity and courtesy. Works (almost) every time.
And speaking of the weather, when is the best time to visit Morocco?
In my opinion, the best time to go to Morocco is April-May and September-October.
Don't even think of summer - you'll roast.
As far as an ideal Morocco travel itinerary, I'd suggest you include the following: Casablanca, Chefchaouen, Fez, Marrakesh, Essaouira - and the Sahara. Go as far South as you can.
I often travel independently and when I do, I love staying in riads, traditional Moroccan houses with inner courtyards and even fountains, many of which are being renovated and converted into hotels.
For a wonderful account of what it takes to renovate a riad - trendy among foreigners these days - you must read Suzanna Clarke’s A House in Fez, although she actually lives in her house and it’s NOT a hotel.
One more thing: Moroccan food is extraordinary, from Moroccan olives to chicken with preserved lemons to Moroccan tajine, that wonderful stew braised for hours in a cone-shaped pot. This recipe explains it all.
You’ll find most Morocco tourist attractions in any good travel guidebook but I do want to share a few places I found special. If you’re near Fez (and you should try to be at some point) take a side trip to Moulay Idriss el Zeitoun. From Moulay Idriss it’s a half-hour walk downhill to Volubilis, a collection of dreamy Roman ruins around which you can build an entire day. (You can easily do this on a day-trip from Fez.)
Another area that nibbled at my heart was the Erg Chagaga area of the Sahara Desert, far enough to avoid the busloads but close enough to the rest of the country to be, well, close. I spent several nights in the desert, one of them even more memorable than the rest.
My one regret is Chefchaouen, also known as Blue Town, Morocco. I haven't been able to visit yet, but you must. I promise I'll go. But since it's so beautiful, here's a photo for you!
In Marrakech, you can take your pick: visit a Berber rug-making family factory; stop by a women’s argan oil cooperative (beware – not all coops are legit) ; get steamed and pounded in a hammam or Turkish bath; take a food tour or a fusion cooking class from my friends at the Cafe Clock; drive across the Atlas Mountains; visit nomadic cave dwellers.
You’ve heard of the immense Djemaa el Fna square in Marrakesh and however overwhelming you might think it is, it is still a must-see.
But Fez is where my heart lies, an older, less touristy town where you can lose yourself in the labyrinth of alleys, strutting along like others have done for centuries before you. It is unlikely that you'll be bothered, and if you peer into the dark recessed openings that dot the medina, you may glimpse a bread maker or a bowl carver or a cloth dyer or many other traditional crafts that Fez doesn't seem to have forgotten.
Need a few more ideas?
Morocco is a feast to look at and you'll never be bored.
The souks are overflowing with bright colors and textures from foods, leather or textiles. The landscape is varied, from majestic desert to rugged mountainscape to fine granular beach. The weather can also be extreme, from cold in the High Atlas in winter or the desert at night to suffocating in summer almost everywhere.
Nature has blessed Morocco with variety, from rippled sand dunes and blue skies and quirky sights like goats hanging out in argan trees. The first time I saw these I made the driver reverse - I wasn't sure my eyes were telling me the truth.
The topography is also diversified, from rugged mountains to desert to low-lying beaches. The High Atlas can be very cold in winter, and the beach can scorch you at the height of summer.
And you can even ski in Morocco in the Atlas mountain resorts.
When planning your Morocco travel budget, make sure you understand this is not an inexpensive destination. Prices were once similar to those of Southeast Asia but those days are long gone. Time and popularity made sure of that.
Luxury Morocco travel compares with five-star travel everywhere, but budget travel might come as a surprise, with prices similar to those you'll find in Europe.
You can compare the cost of living in Morocco to your own city here. This handy calculator will give you a rough idea of how much you’ll need to save based on how long you’ll be in each city. Here’s a quick overview of prices from Budget Your Trip, but for a more in-depth price breakdown from someone who lives in Marrakech, check out this guide.
If you need help keeping track of your travel budget, download this Budget My Trip planner and fill in the blanks with what you learn!
One thing few Moroccan women do is drink alcohol in public so if you want to travel Morocco and drink, best to grab your libation indoors, where you’re staying, or in a restaurant. Downing a beer in street café on your own might get you more attention than you want.
A few more observations, in no particular order:
So is travelling to Morocco safe? In short, yes.
This is a fine country for solo travel, although I wouldn't necessarily recommend you visit on your own if this is your first time solo. If you're a seasoned traveler, you'll navigate the waters.
I love Morocco, even though I wish attitudes to women were a bit different. Still, I've been often - half a dozen times on my own - and I'll go again.
(With contributions by Amanda Mouttaki of MarocMama in Marrakech.)
Have you visited Morocco? I'd love to hear your Morocco travel tips for women’s travel in the comments below!