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Sustainable travel at the highest mountain in North Africa

A tale of two sisters (or what a difference the wholehearted involvement of the local community and a mule or two makes)

Within 20 km two tourism developments have evolved from the same raw material to create such utterly different market offers they could be in separate galaxies.
It takes an hour or so to get from Marrakesh to the Atlas Mountains and the Toubkal National park, where Mount Toubkal – at 4,200mt the highest mountain in North Africa – stands serenely surrounded by other lofty peaks.

Ideal trekking territory, ideal get up and away from the grueling Moroccan summer heat territory, an ideal day trip from Marrakesh.

Anyway that’s what local ruler Caid Souktani, must have thought when, in the 1940’s he built both the Kasbah de Toubkal and the Kasbah de Tamadot as alternate luxury summer mountain getaways. He must have thought again in 1956 when Morocco got its independence and he left them both to rot. That could have been the end of our story.

Except for… looking for a little luxury himself (and a place to store his vast and eclectic art collection), Californian antique dealer Luciano Tempo spotted the opportunity to acquire a grand mountain mansion on the cheap. So he bought and set about restoring the Kasbah Tamadot to the height of opulence, comfort and luxury.

A little later and further up in the mountains, the brothers McHugo, (Chris and Mike) spotted the other Kasbah, fell in love with it (who wouldn’t) and bought it (who wouldn’t if they could afford it and had a use for it? – in the McHugo’s case as a base for school expeditions into the high Atlas).

Said Chris “When I first suggested to Mike that we look into buying the Kasbah it was because I felt that sooner or later, based on its dominant position for access to the High Atlas someone would try and develop it and that we could be a safe pair of hands to help develop international tourism without ignoring the impact on the fragile environment and traditional culture”.

The Toubkal project was also motivated by the fact that the McHugo Brothers had long links with the area and in particular the Ait Bahmed family where trust and respect had been built over many years. Doing business and projects successfully in such a remote area requires great patience and trust.

So the brothers McHugo and Luciano Tempo bought a heap on a mountain each.

What do you do if you have a heap in an exquisite position in one of the world’s great mountain ranges on the one hand and you have groups of English schoolkids intent on mountain trekking on the other? Thought the McHugos

Create one of the world’s best 100 hotels? Amazing, but true – that is exactly what they did.

Part of the Kasbah du Toubkal story is the old estate agents mantra ‘Location, location, location’. And it is true, the Kasbah is in a sensational place with sensational views.

But the rest is sheer responsible tourism good business, combined with the McHugo’s, and the local Berbers’, wonderful sense of true style and exquisite hospitality.

From your arrival in Imlil, the little village at the bottom of the mountain, to your following your baggage-carrying mule through the massive gates to the domain, to your warm welcome at reception, you get the sense that the Kasbah Du Toubkal is very different.

This Shangri la differs from most other hotel developments that are funded from abroad in that the whole establishment is run by local Berbers. Not staffed by locals and run by bosses flown in from abroad. The local community (of fiercely proud and independent Berbers, the original inhabitants of North Africa) have been utterly central to the Kasbah’s creation, reconstruction, development and ethos.

The local community is involved to the extent that, at the opening of the Kasbah in 1995, over 700 local villagers took part in the festivities. Luciano Tempo (the then owner of Kasbah Tamadot) toasted the brothers McHugo remarking that he had seen the site but it was too difficult to acquire. He said gratefully that he was pleased he had not succeeded as at Tamadot he had spent over $200,000 getting electricity or water, what he might have spent in Imlil he could only imagine!

So, how does this unique sustainable, responsible co-operation now affect the guests’ experience?

As in hospitality all over the world, it’s the little things that are memorable, the little things that make the difference.

Little things like the certificate in reception guaranteeing the quality of the well water that guests have the alternative of drinking instead of water muled in in plastic bottles. Little things like the expensive, locally ground and pressed Argon oil provided with breakfast pancakes and amazing jams. Little things like the book of biographies and pictures of every single one the hotel’s staff.

Little things like the smell of the smoke from the wood fire made before every meal by the baker, Khadija Benjaa, to bake each meal’s bread fresh. Little things like the local shampoo, soap, and henna in each room – and for sale to swell the villages funds. Little things like the 5% extra on every payment for villagers.

There are big things too – big things like solar panels, high up in the mountains getting even more effect – big things like the Kasbah’s support for the education of local girls and its commitment and determination to eradicate poverty in the area.

But the biggest thing of all is the effect of this immense, thoughtful cocktail of sustainable practice on the quality of the guest experience. Here, at the Kasbah du Toubkal, you understand just why super luxury establishments all over the world are taking sustainable practices on board. The extra quality that guests get is simply…serenity. Combine this with an extraordinary location, thoughtful, comfortable accommodation and superb food and you have more than a holiday – you deliver a real life-enhancing experience.

And the other Kasbah? The Italian-American antique dealer sold it to Richard Branson and it’s now part of the Virgin Limited Edition brand. Sensational, super luxury, as good as any other 5 star establishment in the world. You know you’re getting international standard service the same as you would in St Tropez or Mustique. Will it change your life in the same way that Kasbah du Toubkal will? Possibly not.

Note: One reason that the Kasbah du Toubkal is able to manage its whole operation sustainably is its level of vertical integration. Customers get McHugo treatment from the first contact to the last. The brothers even operate a joint venture incoming business in Marrakesh see Mountain Voyage Morocco.

Writer, Valere Tjolle, is editor of the Sustainable Tourism Report. This article is a quoted from Travelmole newsletter from 2010-09-26. To read the original article please follow this link .

This article is uploaded by Majbritt Thomsen, administrator on ‘Views On Tourism’

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Posted in Africa, Development, Performance and management, Sustainability.

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