There are snake charmers and monkey tamers putting on a show for tourists in the central square of Marrakech and winding labyrinths of the country's old medinas. There are remote mountain villages that make you feel like the first foreigner to have ever stepped inside and golden, timeless seas of sand.
One thing most people don't visit Morocco for, however, is a glimpse of the future. The Moroccan government and its king, Mohammed VI, are hoping that will soon change with the opening of a high-speed rail system.
Opened in November after over a decade in development, the Al Boraq is Africa's first high-speed train. Morocco is hoping that foreign investors and Moroccans will look to the project as evidence that the country is on the fast-track to progress. Whether that is actually the case or not is up for debate.
"In French, it's called les grands chantiers, the closest translation of which is 'grand design'," Zouhair Ait Benhamou, a PhD candidate at Paris Nanterre University who studies big ticket projects like Morocco's high-speed rail, told The Guardian last month.
For some Moroccans, the train is an expensive folly whose funds would have been better spent on overcrowded schools or the overtaxed medical system. For others, the belief is that the benefits of having futuristic infrastructure will "trickle down" to the rest of Morocco. Only time will tell.
After riding similar trains in China, Russia, and Korea, I knew I had to give Morocco's version a try. Here's what it was like to ride first-class from Tangier to Casablanca.
Though the station opened in 2003 with regular rail, Morocco spent around R500 million to renovate it and add a new building for a new high-speed train system.
Source: Morocco World News
The roughly R30 billion project has been funded with nearly a billion dollars from France and half a billion from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE.
The first leg of the project, spanning from Tangier to Casablanca, Morocco's business hub, opened in November.
Plans are underway to extend the line to tourist hotspots Marrakech and Agadir in the next few years, and eventually Fez.
The spotless, light-filled Tanger Ville station sends the message that the train is as much about "prestige" as anything else.
Source: The Guardian
It's important to remember that the bullet train is far from the only big-ticket infrastructure project the Moroccan government has invested in. Over the last decade, the country has developed numerous ports and a R8 billion solar plant considered the biggest in the world.
Fares for the high-speed train are about 30% higher than on a regular train, which costs between R200 and R370.
All trains leaving Tangier pass through Tanger Ville station, so you don't want to buy tickets for the wrong one. A ride from Tangier to Casablanca on the regular train is a whopping five or six hours.
The high-speed fares depend on the time you are travelling
Source: Morocco World News
Stop TGV, a local coalition that has protested the project, has said the fares are a third of what they would need to be for Morocco to pay back its loans to its international partners.
But Mohamed Rabie Khlie, the director general of ONCF, has said that is important that the train be able to serve all Moroccans and not just "a high-end clientele." Keeping costs down is a major part of that.
Morocco's King, Mohammed VI, named the high-speed train Al Boraq, after a mythical winged horse in Islamic culture.
One of the worries from analysts is that the high-speed train will not be able to get enough passengers to become profitable. Rabie Khlie has said that the rail will need to double its volume to 6 million passengers annually within three years of operation.
Source: Le Monde
I made myself a hot chocolate and began looking for a place to sit for a few minutes.
Ait Benhamou told CNN that in the event the high-speed rail doesn't reach 6 million passengers annually within three years, the government will have to give out subsidies.
One of the hopes of the government is that the high-speed train will encourage foreign investment in the country and convince global business leaders that Morocco is an attractive place for development.
The Tanger Ville station can feel worlds away from parts of Morocco, like the undeveloped rural interior of the country.
To critics like Balafraj, the railway is an expensive project that is big and loud, but does little to help everyday Moroccans. "Morocco is a poor country and the top priority should be education," Balafraj told CNN.
The truth is the project does have the support of many Moroccans, a point that even critics concede. El Hyani told CNN that "In Morocco, when you present people with a fancy new idea, they tend to agree with it," though he added that this phenomenon is due in part to skillful propaganda.
Once I found that I rushed down the concourse to find the first-class car.
As Hassan, an IT worker in Tangier, told Morocco World News shortly after the opening, "Those who say that it is all about prestige are right. But they are missing something important: Prestige counts for an emerging country that aspires to greatness, to big development plans."
Source: Morocco World News
I didn't want to end up in Fez.
Unlike the trains of old, most high-speed trains don't have a traditional dining car. Instead, they have a cafeteria car that sells a few snacks like sodas and sandwiches. The one exception was the bullet train in Russia, which had full meals.
Morocco's high-speed trains are French-made double-decker cars made by Alstom, which manufactures high-speed rail systems for countries all around the world. Still, the feeling among some Moroccans is that the French company got a "sweetheart deal" because of France's colonial history with Morocco.
Source: The Guardian
The seats are covered in a rich red fabric.
Much better than keeping it underfoot or on my lap.
It was classic and modern at the same time.
The benefit was that I had extra leg room. The downside was that I had to negotiate with the person across from me for the space.
Pressing the button opens the seat part so you can extend your legs, while also reclining the back section.
It was very needed during my sunset train ride, where direct sunlight shined into the compartment as we rode down the Atlantic Coast.
For anyone thinking that Morocco is warm year-round, fair warning: The winter is bone-chilling cold.
So if you get unlucky, you'll have to make friends with your neighbour.
There's plenty of room to spread out and work.
The landscape blowing by is sea and beaches on one side and rolling green hills and pine forests on the other.
After about a year or so of track improvements, that time will be cut to a blazing 90 minutes.
Source: Herald Live
To be honest, second-class looked little different from first class. The seats were leather (or fake leather) and not as plush, but otherwise, I couldn't see a difference.
I had to pass through three or four cars to get to it.
But with the longest ride on the train currently topping out at a little over two hours, it makes sense that it wouldn't be more elaborate. I'm sure most people will wait to eat a real meal.
The landscape was passing almost too quickly for my camera.
For comparison, the Gautrain travels up to 160 km/h.
It reminded me of what people imagined the future would be like in the 1960s.
Each car is separated by these automatic doors. You press a button to open them.
I only really noticed the speed when I looked out the window and saw the scenery whizzing by. The scenery in Morocco never stops being stunning. To be honest, it wouldn't be so bad to take the slow train.
The other bathrooms must've looked worse.
Having done many day-long car trips all over Morocco over the previous month, I can't wait until they extend the service to major tourist hubs like Agadir and Marrakech.
China, famously, has facilitated much of its development with its ultrafast rail network. Russia and soon India, are aiming to do the same thing.
Whether it works out will largely depend on if foreign investors buy what Morocco is selling and, more crucially, if Moroccans use the train as much as the ONCF is projecting they will.
While it has been open since 1923, Morocco recently renovated the station for R640 million to upgrade it to be ready for the high-speed train.
While it will take some time for Morocco and the global cabal of analysts to decide whether or not the high-speed rail project is a success economically, from a tourist's perspective, the experience couldn't have been better.
As I always feel after riding a bullet train, whether in Korea, China, Russia, or Morocco, I wondered why the US can't execute such large projects. But one thing I've learned is that these projects usually happen in countries where ruling parties can make decisions without public debate.
That's what happened in Morocco, too. As Balafrej told The New York Times in 2012, the train "is the very symbol of Morocco that we do not want. This Morocco, where the most important decisions ... are taken without consultation or democratic and public debate."
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