Ahh Marrakech. Market stalls with colourful fabrics and handcrafted goods, the delicious scent of spices wafting in the air, and the warm African sun on your skin. Oh, and the scams. So, so many scams. Never before have I been to a destination where every friend who had been there before gave me a dire warning of some kind, from ‘don’t hug in the back of a taxi’, to ‘don’t accept directions or you’ll receive an invoice afterwards’ and ‘watch out in the souks’. Marrakech can be a fantastic destination, but only if you come with your wallet firmly zipped away in your bag, ready to say ‘no’ 100 x per day and count every coin. However alert and suspicious you are, better get ready to triple that, as you won’t get far among the stalls and sellers without facing at least a few scams. Here are some of the most common, so that you can come here prepared and informed…
The first situation you’re likely to face when you land in Marrakech is the dilemma of how to get to the city without paying a ridiculous taxi fare. We rarely take taxis for this reason, as there is almost always an affordable bus or train alternative. In this case, we looked for the bus stop, but were told by the array of taxi driver vultures that the bus wasn’t running because of a strike. Whether or not this was true is another matter, but as we didn’t have internet access there was no way to be sure. In fact, the city isn’t far at all (around 6km) and it would be possible to walk in just over an hour if you really want to stick to a budget. Keep that in mind when negotiating a rate with a taxi driver.
The maximum rate for a taxi ride into the city should be around 50 dirham. However, the taxi drivers will not admit this to you, and will do their utmost to convince you that anything up to 350 dirhams is a perfectly reasonable price. Or that the taxi fare is per person. It is not. We were fairly well aware of this and negotiated our driver down to 100, however this is actually the average salary for an entire day’s work in Morocco, and is not a reasonable taxi fare. Do not accept a price above 50 dirhams. Pretend you are extremely sure about the way to get to the city on foot or by bus, even if it requires you to lie and say you know the city very well. If they won’t agree to a price of around 50, you should walk away and tell them you’re going to catch the bus. Don’t listen to any sob stories about their poor family or dying grandma, unless you want to be prepared to make a donation every time you hear this story – which will be many. Our taxi driver also had the nerve to demand a tip on arrival. We gave him just a few coins, however unless they have really given you an excellent price and service, there is no need to tip at all. Everyone you meet in Marrakech will ask for a tip, so you’d better practice saying no at an early stage.
Please also be aware that there is another taxi-based scam going where they drop you off in the wrong place and demand double to take you back. If this happens, you should have your phone ready and threaten to call the police. Alternatively, you should refuse to pay and walk the rest of the way yourself. You can walk anywhere within the medina in around 15 minutes, so the likelihood is you can go the rest of the way on your own.
[‘Helpful’ people offering directions]
Moroccans become extremely helpful as soon as they catch a glimpse of a tourist who doesn’t know exactly where they are going. However, accept their kindly help at your own risk. The likelihood is it will come with a price tag, or at least a begging hand held out for compensation. If possible, check all your locations, addresses and directions in advance. Bring a paper map or Google map with you and only accept to be pointed in a certain direction, not taken along, as you will certainly be charged for the latter. It’s always best to look like you are 100% sure about where you are going, to avoid those who will take advantage of a lost or unsure tourist. Again, the medina isn’t that big and you can always get where you’re going eventually with a bit of trial and error.
Also be aware of local people recommending you certain sights. A well-known scam involves a local telling you you absolutely must go to see the tanneries. They then lead you there, get you lost and demand money to help you get out again. If you want to see the tanneries, check the location on Google and go by yourself. The same applies to any of the other ‘fantastic’ sights that locals offer to lead you to – such as the berber mosque which is open only one day in a year, which is coincidentally the day you’re there and taking you there in a hurry deserves a huge tip. We’ve been warned about various of these, and I personally wouldn’t go anywhere at all unless I’d checked it beforehand.
[Market stalls and shopping]
I personally don’t recommend buying anything at all in Marrakech, unless you are absolutely sure about it. Everyone is aware of the Arab culture of bargaining a price and haggling over goods, but this is taken to an extreme in Marrakech. No one will quote you anywhere close to a fair price. As a rule of thumb, shoot for around ¼ of the price you’re quoted. Don’t expect them to be fair or honest about it. You’ll hear endless stories about the amazing quality of the goods, the amount of work that’s gone into them, the seller’s starving family etc, and they will try to convince you that 400 dirham is an absolutely fair price, even though you could buy the same item cheaper in London. Be very sure of exchange rates and calculate the price in your own currency. If you could buy it cheaper at home, forget it. Always be willing to walk away if the price is not fair.
I’ve also heard many stories about tourists who have bought a lovely leather bag or soft camel-wool blanket only to open it later and find a cheap synthetic replacement. Don’t allow the ‘helpful’ seller to wrap your goods. Be 100% sure that you’re taking home the item you originally asked for.
In addition, always check your change. You’ll be amazed how many ‘forgetful’ people there are who will get terribly confused about their maths and give you only a third of your change. Count every coin you get given back and do not feel shy to ask for the rest when they inevitably ‘forget’ to give you the full amount.
[Tour guides and tips]
Everyone in Marrakech and the surroundings will ask for a tip for absolutely everything they do. Bear in mind that if you’ve already paid for a tour or excursion, your guide has been paid. Feel free to leave a token of appreciation if you think it’s worth it, but don’t allow them to guilt trip you into it. At most you should leave 10-20 dirham in any case.
[Jema El Fna]
Jema El Fna is the main square of Marrakech and an interesting place to go to experience the sounds, sights and smells of Morocco. However, it’s not referred to as Jema El Scam for no reason. You should be on maximum alert the whole time you’re there, as it’s a hotbed of every type of joker you can imagine.
Be on the lookout for pickpockets at every second. I recommend leaving valuables in your hotel, but if you must bring them, keep them zipped away in a secure pocket or bag – do not leave any item anywhere remotely accessible or on show.
The henna women are a well-known trick. Feel free to get a henna design if you like, but be sure to negotiate the price beforehand, and agree very precisely on the design. The most frequent scam in Marrakech involves not telling you the price beforehand. You get the henna painted on, then afterwards comes the massive price tag that you wouldn’t have dreamed of agreeing to beforehand. Henna women are also very likely to paint bigger or more elaborate designs than you agreed to, then demand more money for the extra painting. This is why you absolutely MUST agree the price and design first, before they even touch your hand. If they ask for more, tell them you didn’t agree to that, hand them the agreed amount and walk away. If you’re not interested in henna, or anything else for that matter, you’d better be very firm in saying NO and walking away. An extremely firm ‘la la shukran’ (no thanks) is always your best bet, before someone starts henna-ing away without your permission, then charging you for it.
Don’t take a photo of a snake charmer or any other performer unless you’d like to be billed for it. Give them a few dirham if you must, but if they start asking for a ridiculous contribution you should just walk away. They are very unlikely to chase you through the square, leaving their snakes or goods in the process.
There are various service providers of different kinds around the city. We got caught by a shoe-shiner who offered to repair my partner’s broken shoes ‘in five minutes’. In fact, he did repair them fairly well and fairly quickly. However, afterwards, of course, comes the bill. In this case, he demanded 250 dirhams for a quick patch-up job. I can’t say we didn’t appreciate the job, but we could have almost bought a new pair of shoes for this rate. We offered him 70 and out came the usual story of how he can’t live on that amount, how terribly unfair we are and how ‘just the materials cost more than that’ (they don’t). In the end we paid 120 and walked away even with his cries of injustice floating in the wind after us. Again, the only solution here is to ALWAYS ask the price beforehand. Don’t hand over your shoes, hands or anything else before you have a concrete price. If you don’t agree a price beforehand, it will be a made-up number that’s more than most people earn in a week.
Delicious fruit drinks and snacks. Every single seller in the city will quote a joke price for a snack such as fruit or cakes from their cart. In reality, no snack should cost more than about 5 dirham. Compare the prices to those in your own country, and yet again, walk away if the price is too high. It’s always better to order from somewhere that displays written prices. They’ll still be tourist prices, but at least you know where you stand. For example, the juice sellers will quote about 4 dirham for a fresh orange juice and 10 for mix. This is fairly reasonable, but be sure to count your change, or they might get all forgetful on you again.
[Eating and drinking]
Generally speaking, we’re quite smart about avoiding scams, however we got burned big time at the food market in Jema El Fna. As you might expect, touts will jostle each other and use any tactics they possibly can to get your attention and get you into their restaurant or to their food stall. No matter how friendly and chatty they are, do not be fooled. I will tell you our experience just so you’re aware of the tricks that will be played if you don’t keep your wits about you.
We were lured into one of the stalls for dinner. Everything looked delicious, and the menu prices seemed reasonable. However, once we got in, the menu disappeared, and were asked if we maybe wanted to try a sample of a few different dishes. This sounded like a good idea, so we agreed. A few minutes later we were served some lovely plates of couscous, vegetables and fish. However, a little later, more and more dishes appeared – more than we could possibly eat. We circumnavigated this by putting our leftovers in a box and eating them for lunch the next day. However, when the bill came, it was 600 dirham. To put this into perspective, you’d pay this at a good restaurant in London. We’re talking here about just food (no drinks) at an outdoor market stall in Morocco. 600 dirhams isn’t just expensive, it’s insane. As we’d already eaten the food, we didn’t have much of a leg to stand on and just paid the amount. However, I wouldn’t like anyone else to have the same experience. As before, always ask the price beforehand. Only accept food that you’ve ordered. If random dishes start appearing, which you didn’t want or order, refuse them unless you are assured they are freebies. Take note of the menu prices when you order – in fact, keep the menu on you at all times if possible, so that you can remind them of the prices at the end.
Generally speaking, wherever you eat, you should do the following: ensure you know the price before you even take a single bite of food. Check the menu or ask the price and don’t accept any vague promises or indications. Take a picture of the menu or keep it so that they can’t change the price later on. Don’t accept food you didn’t order unless you are 100% sure it’s a freebie. Check and double check the bill at the end to be sure no random coffees or beers appear on there, that you didn’t even have. And again, check your change. Always.
If this all tires you out just thinking about it, you’re much safer in the ‘real’ restaurants, where you can check Trip Advisor reviews. These type of restaurants are almost certainly priced at a tourist rate, but at least what you see is what you get. Check blogs or review sites for recommendations and indications of prices. However, my advice still stands to check the bill before you pay.
All of this might sound a bit ‘negative Nancy’, but there is really no point going to Marrakech with a naïve attitude. Unless you are aware of all the possible scams, you will be hit by at least 1-2, and you’ll also have an endless array of people demanding tips, asking high prices and generally treating you as a cash cow because you’re white or wearing a western outfit. Some people will counter all this with the argument that ‘not all Moroccans are like this’ or ‘you’re not being fair on the ones who don’t cheat’. My reply to this would be two things: firstly, the sad fact is that the number of cheaters is extremely high, and seems to outweigh the number of honest sellers. Secondly, allowing cheaters to scam you out of huge amounts of money is actually even more unfair to the honest sellers, as they get a modest price for their wares, whilst the scammers squeeze our huge amounts of cash for inferior goods. Do your part and try to avoid this happening.
Whilst the money that you might lose from these experiences might be ‘only’ in the region of 20 dollars or so a pop, it can make for a holiday that’s much more expensive than planned. It also reinforces a culture of treating foreigners like idiots or cash cows, and confirms westerners’ reputation as being made out of money and somehow ‘deserving’ to be scammed just because we’re foreign. The only way that this very unpleasant culture will change over time is if people start visiting with all the information available beforehand, and if more tourists are prepared to say no, walk away and report illegal behaviour.
Again, the two general thumb-rules: 1) Always ask for price upfront, for absolutely everything; 2) The more friendly they try to behave, the more they’re trying to rip you off.
What scams have you experienced in Morocco? How would you advise tourists to avoid them? Please share below!