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How Marrakesh became the destination of choice for celebrities

By Fahd Iraqi, in Rabat and Marrakech
Posted on Monday, 20 January 2020 11:05, updated on Tuesday, 11 February 2020 10:25

Candles are placed in the water before the Cruise 2020 collection show for French fashion house Dior in Marrakech, Morocco, 29 April 2019. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal -

What do Lætitia Hallyday, Julien Clerc, Meryl Streep and Jessica Alba have in common? They all spent the Christmas holidays in the Ochre City.

And with good reason: Morocco does not skimp on ensuring the comfort and safety of celebrities, who then become its influential ambassadors of charm.

The year 2019 is a record for the airport of Marrakesh-Menara: during the second half of December, more than 200 private jets landed there, transporting a privileged clientele who came to relax in the Ochre City — Marrakesh.

They included many nationalities: Johnny Hallyday’s widow, Lætitia (French) and the singer Julien Clerc and Meryl Streep — 21 times Oscar-nominated and three times winner (American). Streep, who was earlier in Marrakesh for the International Film Festival, chose to return to celebrate the transition to the year 2020. She visited the Musée des Confluences-Dar El Bacha with Mehdi Qotbi, president of the Fondation Nationale des Musées, who shared a snapshot of the moment on Instagram.

Upmarket clientele

The Office national Marocain du Tourisme, with its modest budget of Dh750m ($78m), could not have afforded better advertising. Marrakesh is banking on viral marketing to attract more of this upmarket clientele. Since the middle of the 2000s, the city has been moving upmarket to meet the demands of American VIPs. They love the attention they receive.

“The beauty, the colors, the incense, orange blossom, spices and most importantly the people in Morocco -it’s almost too much beauty to absorb -everything we’ve experienced in #Marrakech has been Incredible! ” The message posted on Instagram in April by Jessica Alba was read by the 17 million fans of the American actress, who celebrated her 38th birthday in Morocco.

In August 2018, it was the star Madonna who packed her bags and headed for the medina to celebrate her 60th birthday. The pop queen’s visit led to a series of arrangements.

“She spent the first few days at the El Fenn Riad, before celebrating at the famous Kasbah Tamadot,” said an insider in Marrakesh. These two residences, owned respectively by Vanessa Branson and Richard Branson, have become the haunt of global celebrities.

“A few days before Madonna’s arrival, the walls of El Fenn Riad had been raised by 50cm to protect its inhabitants from the indiscreet looks of the paparazzi,” a local source told us.

Image of tolerance

The singer took care to document her journey on social networks. Her 14.7 million Instagram followers didn’t miss a thing about her visit. Travelling through a maze of dark alleyways, a high sign looking for a minaret from which springs a strident, “Allahu Akbar”, and Madonna, the queen of the provocative, strolling peacefully in Marrakesh among Muslims heading towards the mosque…What better way to reinforce the image of tolerance and security that the kingdom maintains?

The Ochre City offers celebrities a freedom of movement they rarely find elsewhere.

“All the big stars who have passed through Marrakesh have been able to go to the Jemaa El Fna square or to the medina without ever being harassed either by overexcited fans or overly invasive photographers,” explained the source.

The kingdom’s security services, however, are watching every move. Off-camera in Madonna’s video, there are two men are in charge of her security.

“These are our people,” confirmed a source at the interior ministry. “We can’t let such a personality loose in a public place without protection.”

An entire police unit is on duty to protect VIPs: heads of state, CEOs and showbiz figures.

“They usually have their own services, which we coordinate with,” explained the source. “With the stars, who like to go to very exposed public places, we remain very discreet, to the point that some don’t even realise we were very close to them.”

Senior officers in charge of the protection of high-ranking officials are fluent in English — one of the recruitment criteria. Agents in the field must be proficient in the basics.

Hollywood stars

In addition to the guarantee of security and discretion, is the impeccable tourist services. At the end of December, Meryl Streep stayed in one of the riads at Royal Mansour — a night there costs between Dh17,000 and Dh70,000. The New York Times, in a feature on Marrakesh published in January, recommended visitors to the city try the food at the hotel’s restaurant, La Grande Table Marocaine, run by star chef Yannick Alléno.

More “affordable” is the Amanjena, another address prized by the stars, which offers private houses for between Dh6,000 and Dh28,000 per night. Many people also stay in the luxurious properties of the Palmeraie or in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains.

Recent visitors included include top names in the music charts, such as Rihanna, David Bowie and Prince; numerous football stars (Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo has investments there), politicians of all stripes, and many, many Hollywood headliners, such as Brad Pitt, Will Smith, Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek.

Silver screen

In 2001, Marrakesh launched an International Film Festival, an initiative of King Mohammed VI, the presidency of which is entrusted to his brother, Moulay Rachid. In 2018, crowds flocked to the outskirts of the Palais des Congrès to get a close look at director Martin Scorsese and his favourite actor, the legendary Robert De Niro. After walking the red carpet, Hollywood’s two giants were full of praise for the city and the country.

“Capital of African Culture”

2020 should be just as high-flying. Twice inscribed on the World Heritage list, thanks to its medina and Jemaa El Fna Square, Marrakesh was elected “Capital of African Culture”.

“The success of this city is to have become a brand in its own right. In the upper-class circles, we no longer say “Marrakesh”, but “Kesh,” chuckled a French investor.

Long before it became the flagship destination for American VIPs, the city was a centre for the French intelligentsia. In the 1920s, the painter Jacques Majorelle found creative material in the souks of the Ochre City and the casbahs of the region. His artist’s villa — which he painted himself — is today one of the main tourist attractions in the centre. Its purchase by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé in 1980 contributed to making Marrakesh the “new Paris”, a capital of arts and luxury. The Americans followed suit, with their fondness of the ‘French art of living’.

The designer Jacquemus has stayed several times in the Ochre City to create the “Le Souk” collection, which caused a sensation during the 2018 Paris Fashion Week. And when it’s not Marrakesh that’s on the haute couture catwalks, it’s the catwalks that relocate.

Dior organized its “Croisières 2020” fashion show at the El Badi Palace, a jewel of Islamic architecture, illuminated for the occasion by more than 3,000 flames. American diva Diana Ross — one of the most successful female artists in history, according to the Guinness Book of Records — made the trip for a private concert.

Ronaldo at home

A new luxury hotel, built by footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, will soon be added to the long list of Marrakesh palaces. The Pestana CR7, adjacent to the Four Seasons Resort, cost the Portuguese star some $222m.

“Its opening in 2020 will be a new opportunity to see the cameras of the world focused on the city,” explains a tourist operator. “It is not out of the question that the legendary player will arrive with all his friends to celebrate this event.”

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