Few countries hold as much 1000 and 1 Nights fascination as Morocco does and it seems everyone, gay or straight is planning a visit to this dreamy, fabled country where behind every medina wall an adventure awaits, awash in rainbow colours, art, architecture, and cuisine. Morocco has a romantic reputation as a great destination for mostly French and German tourists, but not necessarily known for being a gay-friendly destination. However, that doesn’t mean that it completely lacks in LGBT tourism. Travel and tourism is strongly supported by the current monarch, Mohammed VI, who hopes to double the tourist visits to Morocco to 20 plus million annual visits in the next five years. Recent developments concerning the imprisonment of a British citizen for ‘homosexual acts’, two Spanish lesbians appearing topless and tattooed outside a mosque in Rabat and a British couple who had their hotel booking cancelled by British Airways upon discovery that they were Gay, has the LGBT community calling for an all out travel boycott to Morocco. So how much gay travel is there in Morocco? We sat down with a couple of travel experts, one gay, one straight to get the gay scoop on travel in Morocco.
“Morocco is an exceptionally safe country and more liberal than any other Arab state but has strict yet silent social rules about being Gay, especially when exposed to other Moroccans. Concerning planned gay travel tours coming to Morocco, there are no other LGBT-focused travel companies except OUT Adventures arranging group tours of Morocco and there are several gay individuals who prefer to hit the back roads and do their own thing,” says Toronto-based OUT Adventures founder Robert Sharp. OUT specializes in small group adventure travel for gay men, their friends, and family and organized our 11-day journey through Morocco. ‘The concept of gay is a difficult one in Moroccan culture where family, marriage and having children are pretty much the focus of an individual’s life. The idea of not having a wife and kids is alien to many Morrocan gay men. Hence the many closeted men, searching for sex on the down low on hookup apps like Grindr.”
40% of Morocco’s population is under 25 and is a country where men and women were until very recently, completely divided and sex amongst men not considered gay (Any man assuming the passive role would be regarded as being gay). Although times have changed, it should be noted that homosexuality is still illegal in Morocco. However, the country is very tolerant, and people live and let live and what happens behind closed doors remains there. “Being gay in Morocco is illegal and can be punishable by up to three years in prison, although how much this is enforced varies from region to region. And it should be noted that the law does not apply to non-Moroccan gay and lesbian partners traveling or staying together on their vacations” says Thomas Hollowell, founder of Journey Beyond Travel, one of Morocco’s most renowned in-country tour operators, organizing customized travel itineraries throughout Morocco. ‘LGBT travelers to Morocco should use discretion when traveling through the country. In fact, public displays of affection should be avoided by anyone, as the country’s mostly Muslim population are quite conservative in this regard. As this applies to the gay and straight community alike, the gay traveler through Morocco need not take offense with this reality as it is simply a sign of cultural respect.
Is being gay more acceptable with younger generations versus their parents or grandparents? “The lack of education and high unemployment amplify potential discrimination. With high levels of unemployment and no welfare state, many young men, straight and gay are turning to prostitution to make a living” says Robert Sharp. Obviously, this activity is illegal, with cases where gay travelers have been blackmailed, robbed or murdered by Hustlers simply on the take. And if the Hustler is a minor, one can expect a lengthy prison sentence. Sharp continues: “It is common to see Moroccan men holding hands and dancing together in discos, but my understanding is that one should not imply that they are even the slightest bit gay.”
With globalization and social media engagement exploding, many young Moroccan men are no longer engaging in these simple, day-to-day, long-held masculine customs. They are now acutely aware that in Western culture such behavior is considered gay and do not wish to be associated with such a perceived stigma. Except for our first night in Casablanca where our double bed was split into singles, all of the Moroccan-owned riads that were booked by OUT Adventures upgraded us to their best suite of rooms without question. No hassle. No bother. They even made wine, beer, and liquor available with a simple call ahead by our guide. As experienced travelers, we simply needed to be aware of the extreme cultural differences and respect local customs and sensitivities. Gay male and lesbian couples will not find any problems in major hotels in Marrakech, Agadir or Casablanca or any of the major tourist destinations throughout Morocco. In fact, while no gay scene is evident, Agadir reportedly has a major European gay community that meets in various cafes and bars along the Boulevard Hassan II, enjoying the Moroccan sun, cheap living and the abundance of handsome looking men.
When the sun goes down over North Africa, the terracotta walls of ancient Morocco turn a rich, red hue. Little wonder, then, that as a gay travel destination, this captivating country has been the inspiration for so much art, literature, and music. The best advice to gay travelers to Morocco is to be streetwise and bear in mind that you are in a Muslim country where being gay is against the law. Developing relationships with the locals, understanding their views and comfort levels (some areas of Morocco are more religious than others) will serve you well as you travel the dusty back roads and souks of this melting pot of European, African and Arabic influences, where Gay travellers can savour the food, observe the architecture and awake to the mournful call to prayer as it echoes evocatively down narrow, winding streets and over rough and tumble tiled rooftops of this 1000 and 1 Nights, most romantic of countries.