RABAT, Morocco (AP) - Spared the violence and instability of its North African neighbors, Morocco is looking to lure even more tourists to its beaches, cities and mountains to make up for those kept home by Europe's economic crisis.
Morocco hasn't had anywhere near the catastrophic drop in tourism experienced by once-popular destinations such as Egypt and Tunisia, both of which are going through chaotic and at times violent post-revolutionary phases. Still, Morocco's numbers are flagging, Tourism Minister Lahcen Haddad said in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press.
More than half of Morocco's 9.3 million visitors in 2011 were French or Spanish, but those groups arrived in smaller numbers that before and stayed fewer nights due to financial crises in their nations. To offset those losses, Haddad said Morocco wants to attract more visitors from Britain, Germany and Saudi Arabia.
The challenge for Morocco will be to distinguish itself from its more unstable neighbors.
"A lot of people put Morocco in the same basket as the other countries even though Morocco has known a different road in terms of political reform," the tourism chief said. "It has required a lot of communication in order to put Morocco in a different light than what has been reported in some media."
Morocco experienced pro-democracy demonstrations in 2011 much like the rest of the region, but these largely died away after the king pushed through constitutional reforms and an opposition party won elections. Still, Morocco's once booming tourism sector has dragged, with arrivals growing just 1 percent in 2011 while the nights they stayed in hotels - a key indicator of revenue - dropped 6 percent.
The slow growth is a major concern for a country where tourism is considered a key industry. Morocco's tourism sector, which recently surpassed remittances from workers abroad as the main source of foreign currency, employs some 470,000 people in this country of 32 million.
The country features a combination of sea and sand tourism, with beach resorts such as Agadir on the Atlantic coast and exotic medieval-style cities like Marrakech - the country's top destination. Morocco's 2020 Vision plan, its main development plan for tourism, seeks to expand the country's appeal to include its mountains and deserts.
Germany and the United Kingdom, which have been less affected by the economic crisis than several of their European neighbors, are the main targets for the ministry's campaign to attract new visitors. There are currently 500,000 annual visitors from Britain, for instance, and Haddad said Morocco "would like to get something like a million."
Also in the minister's sights: wealthy Arab tourists from the Gulf, who tend to stay longer and spend more than other tourists.
"The places where they used to go, Egypt and Lebanon, they can't now because of security reasons, so they are coming to Morocco," Haddad said. "We have seen a huge growth in that market, about 20 percent last year."
In the long run, Haddad said Morocco also hopes to attract more visitors from China.