Somewhere to souk it up in style

Thursday September 14th 2006

Faith Glasgow

Marrakech is unlikely to be the first destination that pops into your head when you are considering possible locations for your dream holiday property. It sounds far too exotic for sensible buyers: too full of hippies, tummy bugs and sand. But the reality is rather different. These days, you are more likely to meet an interior designer than a hippy, and it would be perfectly possible to spend an entire holiday eating at McDonald?s and drinking manhattans, if you so desired. Hard to escape the sand, though.

Nonetheless, Marrakech is a far cry from Benidorm. Despite the longstanding French influence (Morocco was a French colony until 1956), a recent surge of European tourists and an epidemic of construction work around the old town, it remains an excitingly un-European city. The main square at sunset is heaving with locals and tourists meandering among snake charmers, Berber musicians and unfathomable street shows, or sitting at the open air cafe stalls eating shish kebabs and sheep?s heads. Head into the old souks and you could emerge with a hookah, a carpet or a live chicken; after some pretty impressive haggling, I scored three pairs of pointy Moroccan leather slippers and a gram of saffron.

Cosmopolitan culture

When you get tired of the relentless crowds it is not difficult to retreat to more familiar surroundings. There is an impressive choice of smart restaurants, bars and nightclubs ? many run by foreigners ? where Marrakech?s growing army of beautiful people, local and foreign, hang out. If you want to get away altogether, the mountains are a 45-minute journey, the desert is about three hours away and the coast is nearer.

Apart from the cultural fascinations of the country, the interesting thing for time-strapped international buyers is that Marrakech is extremely accessible. The airport is an international hub, and a mere 10-minute drive from the hotels and the city centre.

Morocco has undergone much change in the last six years. The new king, Mohammed VI, is young, dynamic, popular, Europe-facing, democratically inclined and very keen both to attract foreign investment and to get his country firmly established on the European tourist map.

The resultant building boom in Marrakech comprises a mix of apartment blocks bought mostly by Moroccans (there is a growing market for weekend boltholes from those living in Tangiers or Casablanca), villas for wealthy Moroccans and foreigners, and chain hotels, all springing up like flowers after desert rain. Unsurprisingly, says Nabil Slitine, a Moroccan engineer who has recently returned after 15 years in the US to manage the construction of the Four Seasons hotel and residential project (on which more below), real estate prices in the expanding New City have tripled in the last two years or so.

So far, foreign buyers, like tourists, have been predominantly French, with a sprinkling of Italians and British. Most have bought converted riads (townhouses) built around a central courtyard and tucked away in the narrow maze of streets that makes up the walled medina (old city); the rest have opted for villas in the swanky suburb of La Palmeraie.

Attracting a new crowd

Foreign developers are now sniffing around at the opportunities out there. Factors influencing their interest include Morocco?s great climate (July and August can be very hot, but there is no humidity), the low cost of living, rapidly rising local property prices, a growing demand among UK buyers for ?new? and different second home destinations (witness the interest in northern Cyprus, Bulgaria, Croatia and even Thailand), relatively cheap flights and Morocco?s current high fashion status.

Several projects aimed at the upper end of the European market were launched last spring. But be warned: all are priced for international buyers. If you want bargains in line with the local market you will have to look elsewhere. In Marrakech itself, outside the walls of the medina but only a few minutes? walk from the bustle of the city centre, a major new scheme is planned for a 40-acre site currently used for agricultural research. It has views ? if you are luckier with the weather than I was ? out towards the snow-capped High Atlas mountains.

At the heart of the development will be a five-star hotel operated by the Canadian Four Seasons chain and complete with all the facilities you would expect of such an establishment. Hamptons International and Knight Frank are jointly marketing 40 properties to be built in the grounds. Owners will have full use of the hotel facilities, so they will be able to dial up for room service if they can?t be bothered to cook or go out. Twenty of the units will be two or three-bedroom riads, each built around a courtyard. Although they are relatively compact compared with the villas (interiors of 160 to 220 sq m plus terraces and balconies to each bedroom), there is no shortage of living space, with a living room, dining room, kitchen/breakfast room, office, laundry and plunge pool.

The 20 three- and four-bedroom villas planned will be altogether grander and considerably larger (up to 425 sq m) and on substantial plots. They will include staff quarters, a media room, double-height lounge rooms in the larger properties, and courtyards measuring up to 10 x 5m, complete with calming water features. Expect plenty of Moorish influence throughout, with an abundance of wooden screening, trellising, plaster-ribbed roofs and traditional keyhole-shaped windows.
It is an interesting package for foreign buyers, with the reassurance of the hotel?s security system, maintenance programme and upkeep of the grounds (covered by a service charge yet to be fixed). Some riads may be sold as a turnkey package ? fully decorated, furnished and equipped to the standards and style of the hotel, so that they can be put into the hotel accommodation pool and earn a rental return when the owner is absent. Riad prices are likely to start at around 350,000, while villas will cost up to 850,000, all on a freehold basis.

Rural retreat

If you like the idea of a rural setting and easy access to the mountains for skiing and rambling but don?t want to meet that sort of purchase price or the attendant running costs, a rather different scheme is being constructed at Bab Adrar D?Atlas by a company called Amazing Morocco. It is 10 minutes further from Marrakech ? a lovely, fertile spot surrounded by cypresses and orange and fig trees, and full of birdsong and the scent of orange blossom. But the architect, Karim el Achak, stresses that although there will be 10 houses on the plot, many of the trees will be preserved. Indeed, the plan is for the estate to employ a land manager and produce its own olives, olive oil and other goodies. It will also include an on-site spa and sports facilities.

These villas will be sold on a freehold, fractional ownership basis, with quarter shares ranging from 85,000 for a two-bedroom house to 125,000 for the four-bedroom properties. If you don?t want to use your full quota, Amazing Morocco will organise the rental, charging up to 10,000 for a fully staffed house, inclusive of all food and wine.


Hamptons International

Knight Frank

Project Tasoultante
01666 861049

Amazing Morocco

Photograph: Judith Thomas

Money Observer

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