Budget Airlines Herald Promise and Peril for Morocco

In this fishing village on Morocco's southern coast, French writer Antoine de St-Exupery dreamed of the faraway worlds visited by his immortal character, the Little Prince. Eighty years on, the haphazard cluster of salmon-colored buildings and the crenelated shell of a Spanish fort still oozes charm.

But Shaibata Merebbi Rebbo - a native son, local history buff and contact for the United Nations Development Program - feels the wide world pressing down on his home. He worries that Tarfaya's drowsy sepia-tinted existence risks being obliterated by mass tourism as Morocco's skies open to European budget airlines.

"The rhythm of mass tourism is very quick," he said. "All the things that used to be beautiful will change."

This year, Morocco became the first African country to join Europe's flight zone. Loosened controls and slashed airport fees led budget pioneer Easyjet to start flights to Marrakech in July, and Irish rival Ryanair is set to arrive in late October. Fledgling Moroccan low-costers are joining the action, with startup Jet4you announcing new flights from Paris.

To fly to Morocco, Europeans used to have to pay big carriers like Air France, British Airways and Morocco's own Royal Air Maroc hundreds of dollars (euros). In a devastating undercut, budget airlines are now offering return tickets from Europe for under $60 (euro47).

Remote Tarfaya is still far from the budget airlines' initial bridgeheads in northern Morocco. But with Ryanair alone looking to expand to up to twenty Moroccan destinations, Merebbi Rebbo foresees a lot more foreigners visiting Tarfaya in coming years.

He hopes tourism will provide a much-needed economic boost, but also worries about the impact on local lifestyles and cultures.

"The municipality would have the money to create green spaces and improve the roads," he said, plodding down a dusty alleyway. But tourism must be controlled, he added. "If we need infrastructure to accommodate these people, it must respect the local architecture, not build high buildings."

Some 500 miles (800 kilometers) to the north in Rabat, Morocco's tranquil capital, Tourism Minister Adil Douiri has ideas strikingly similar to Merebbi Rebbo's. In an interview, he said the government hopes to drum up some $7 billion (euro9 billion) between 2001 and 2010 to develop major historic cities like Fes and Marrakech as weekend destinations for Europeans and attract others to upscale beach resorts for longer, sun-soaked stays. Most of the funding will come from private investors, he said.

Morocco hopes tourism will help lower chronic unemployment - estimated at 20 percent in cities - and modernize an economy still heavily grounded in agriculture.

"Tourism is the broadest industry in terms of job creation - it's transport, it's retail, it's everything," said the minister.

Key are budget airlines, which the government hopes will significantly boost tourist numbers from 5.8 million in 2005 to 10 million a year by 2010.

Douiri said tourism will also help rescue crumbling historic towns and walled cities the government is unable to save by providing owners with cash to repair buildings and install modern utilities like running water and telephone lines.

Real estate agents are gearing up for more European vacationers and retirees as cheap air fares make commuting to and from Europe easier. They expect rents to rise and say developers are already getting ahead by building small studios and flats more suited to Westerners than the cavernous apartments meant for traditionally large Moroccan families.

Said French real estate agent Olivier Boisard, who caters mainly to French retirees moving to Morocco: "The potential is enorme, enorme, enorme!"

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