Synagogue of the exiles Peru seeks to boost tourism with new media campaign
Historic Jewish quarter of Marrakesh sees tourism revival
The once teeming Jewish area of Moroccan tourist gem Marrakesh is seeing its fortunes revived as visitors including many from Israel flock to experience its unique culture and history.
“You’re now entering the last synagogue in the mellah,” the walled Jewish quarter in the heart of the ochre city, Isaac Ohayon says as he enthusiastically guides tourists through the courtyard of the Lazama synagogue.
“Many visitors come from Israel – you wouldn’t believe the demand!” adds the jovial 63-yearold hardware shop owner.
This place of worship and study was built originally in 1492 during the Inquisition when the Jews were driven out of Spain.
Known as the “synagogue of the exiles,” it hosted generations of young Berbers who converted to Judaism and were sent from villages in the region to learn the Torah, before finally being deserted in the 1960s.
In classrooms now transformed into a museum, fading color photographs tell the story of a now-dispersed community, with many having left for France, North America and especially Israel.
The caption on one sepia shot of an old man sitting by a pile of trunks says it all: “They are traveling towards a dream they have prayed for for more than 2,000 years.”
Rebecca is now in her 50s and grew up in Paris, but she has “great nostalgia” for Morocco and returns as often as she can.
“The Jewish Agency began recruiting the poorest in the 1950s and then everyone left after independence [ from France], at the time of King Hassan II’s policy of Arabization,” she explains.
The Jewish Agency of Israel is a semi-official organization that oversees immigration to the country.
‘The last young Jew’
Before the wave of departures, Morocco hosted North Africa’s largest Jewish community, estimated at between 250,000 and 300,000 people.
There are fewer than 3,000 left.
Marrakesh at the foot of the Atlas mountain range was home to more than 50,000 Jews, according to a 1947 census.
Now, 70 years later, around 100 are thought to remain, many of them extremely elderly.
Jewish-owned homes inside the mellah were sold to Muslim families of modest means, and the walls of the district were eroded by time.
“Sometimes we can’t get even 10 men together for prayers,” says one woman worshipper at the old synagogue, preferring to remain anonymous.
But at celebrations marking the end of the festival of Sukkot, which commemorates the Jewish journey through the Sinai after their exodus from Egypt, and the Simchat Torah holiday, the place is buzzing with song, dance and traditional dishes.
The worshipper says she has “never seen so many people” there.
Jacob Assayag, 26, proudly calls himself “the last young Jew in Marrakesh.”
“Since the quarter was restored, there have been more and more tourists,” says the restaurateur and singer.
A restoration project begun just over two years ago has already seen 17.5 million euros ($20.5 million) spent.
Ferblantiers Square, a large pedestrian area near the spice souk lined with benches and palm trees, also benefited from the revamp.
Twenty years ago, the quarter was renamed “Salaam (‘peace’ in Arabic),” but this year saw its original “El Mellah” name restored on the orders of King Mohamed VI “to preserve its historic memory” and develop tourism.
A sensitive topic
The streets with their ochre facades once more bear their names on plaques in Hebrew. The synagogue, for example, is on Talmud Torah Street.
There is much to see inside the mellah.
Camera-toting tourists snap vigorously at shopfronts and the carved wooden doorways of houses in the quarter.
“Many people come every year from Israel for the [ Jewish] holidays, and this year has seen even more, maybe 50,000,” says Israeli tourist guide David, leading a group from Tel Aviv.
“I feel at home in Morocco because I was born here,” adds the 56-year-old from the port of Ashdod just north of the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip.
His parents left Marrakesh in the 1960s, when David was just 4 years old, “because they were Zionists.”
Ohayon says visitors from the Jewish state are often bowled over by Marrakesh.
“Moroccan Jews can’t forget their homeland and Israelis who come here for the first time find the spirit of tolerance here almost unbelievable when they themselves live under constant tension,” he says.
Officially, Morocco has neither diplomatic nor economic ties with Israel, but in reality, there are few obstacles to both business and tourism.
Moroccan media reports say commercial exchanges between the two countries this year have amounted to more than 4 million dollars a month.
The kingdom, seen as a safe destination, recorded a more than 10 percent rise in tourist arrivals between January and August this year over 2016, with 8 million visitors.
From backpacking in the Andes to luxury Amazon river cruises, Peru has positioned itself as one of the most attractive tourist destinations in the world. Peru has enjoyed a growing tourism industry with more and more people visiting the country year on year.
Now, the Peruvian government intends to build on this increase by launching a campaign to double the number of tourists visiting the country by 2021. The campaign focuses on illustrating Peru’s cultural, natural and culinary riches, revolving around the idea that “Peru is the richest country in the world.”
The campaign was launched at this year’s World Travel Market event in London. “When you come to Peru, you will become more enriched by experiences” says Elisabeth Hakim, PROMPERÚ’s UK and North American markets coordinator.
PROMPERÚ is reacting to a new and redefined understanding of wealth, the focus is no longer purely on material wealth, but also on wealth of opportunities, connections and culture. Peru fully meets this new landscape with a wealth of authentic and diverse experiences. Not only can visitors enjoy the breathtaking sights of one of the world’s seven wonders in Machu Picchu, but the country now offers a vast range of life enriching moments for each and every visitor.
“Peru is blessed with a rich diversity of landscapes, we have beaches, mountains, jungles and more” explains Katty VilchezMichie of Setours, one of the tour operators supporting the campaign.
This natural advantage allows Peru to offer a vast range of experiences from South America’s first luxury sleeper train which winds through the Andes from Cusco to Lake Titicaca, to trekking in the dense amazon rainforest and experiencing the Gocta waterfalls, the world’s third largest.
Fans of culture and archaeol- ogy can explore the wonders of Inca and Pre-Inca cultures like the Chachapoyas of Peru’s andean “Cloud Forests” whilst food lovers can delve into Peru’s rich culinary culture.
There has also been a big focus on improving infrastructure for Peru’s tourism industry, this year saw the opening of a brand new cable car to the 1,200 year old Kuelap mountain citadel and an increase in direct flights from Lima to Peru’s rich northern region.
Along with the government campaign, 30 companies from Peru’s tourism industry have pledged to support the campaign encouraging tourism in Peru.
“Peruvians are really friendly and welcoming people and they want more people to come to Peru,” said Claudia Alfaro of Lima Tours.
This friendly nature is at the heart of Peru’s appeal, a place where visitors can relax and explore to enrich themselves whilst making connections with Peruvians in some of South America’s most breathtaking backdrops.
PROMPERÚ hope to have 7 million annual visitors to Peru by 2021 by building on the country’s well known tourist sites and offering and broad and diverse selection of life enriching moments through Peru’s “myriad of opportunity, biodiversity, heritage and culture.”
Tourism is one of Peru’s most important industries, representing nearly 4 percent of the country’s GDP and employing nearly one and a half million people meaning this is more than a campaign, it’s a national movement towards welcoming more and more people to Peru, creating timeless getaways, soul enriching breaks from the ordinary in what Peruvians deem “the richest country in the world.”
A multi-colored mountain in Vinicunca National Park, in the Cusco district of Peru