It is lunchtime in Marrakech, but the Djemaa el-Fna is so deserted it takes me a minute to recognise what is usually the medina’s social nexus. There are no snake charmers wielding pungi flutes, nor are there any henna artists on plastic stools fanning themselves with their pattern cards in the midday heat. Yet some things remain reassuringly familiar: the sky is blue, the Koutoubia mosque still cuts through the skyline, and my guide nearly gets run over by a motorbike within five minutes of introducing himself.
I should have been in Marrakech this week, but there is no travel corridor with the UK and the Foreign Office is still warning against all but essential travel to Morocco. My flights were cancelled by the airline, so I’m doing the next best thing: a virtual tour of the city. It’s a pilot for a new venture between Swedish startup Local Purse and adventure travel company Intrepid.
The aim of Local Purse, launched by visual storyteller Lola Akinmade Åkerström, is to connect local guides, shops and artisans with travellers all over the world who are unable – or unwilling – to travel. Covid has been the catalyst, but the concept could also be welcomed by those trying to reduce their carbon footprint.
Intrepid’s role is to provide vetted guides, artisans and cooperative partners from its extensive global network. My tour is being hosted by Redouane El Mouatasim, a registered Marrakech guide and Intrepid’s local operations manager. He’s standing in the middle of the square wearing a red company T-shirt, face mask, chunky headphones and a mic.
As Redouane turns around to head into the souks, our view becomes his view. There’s a knee-high girl with pigtails chasing pigeons across the square. A lone djellaba-cloaked shopper hobbles by and a boombox causes a brief disturbance. The walk is remarkably smooth thanks to a gimbal (a sophisticated selfie stick) that stabilises the movement of the phone camera.
“Every time I come here there are more shops open, which is great news. People have started having hope, with the news coming about the vaccine,” says Redouane as we move past green-canopied stalls lining the souks’ outer perimeter. The 4G coverage in the medina is fluid, so there’s no jittery video or audio as we go.
Like many countries that rely on inbound tourism, Morocco has been floored by the pandemic. Its Department of Studies and Financial Forecasts (DEPF) says losses in the tourist sector in the first seven months of 2020 amounted to £1.52bn, a 44% drop in revenue. It estimates that around 50% of people working in tourism will have lost their jobs this year.
“I have heard about [Marrakech] guides begging in the streets. It is as dramatic as that,” says Zina Bencheikh of Intrepid, who has been working with Åkerström on the Local Purse launch in Marrakech.
Led by Redouane, we pass into Souk Ableuh – the olive market on the eastern extremity of the square. Glistening pyramids of olives swim into view, flanked by columns of bottled cornichons. “Get closer,” he whispers, zooming in. “It’s beautiful – look at all the different colours.”
Our first stop is Al Nour, a disabled women’s cooperative that hand crafts contemporary embroidered linens, kaftans and other clothing. To get to its shop we enter the quissariat – covered markets where waterfalls of sunlight shine through gappy rafters and drip like molten gold on to hammered brass lamps. We pass bulbous leather pouffes and bubblegum-coloured babouche slippers. When Local Purse and Intrepid launch private tours in January 2021, virtual travellers will be able to buy on the fly – essentially, look and point – as their guide walks the souks helping virtual shoppers to haggle. The guide will then package and send the purchases to their home.
Åkerström’s tours promise an “experience first, shopping second” approach. The pilot is a group tour, but when this experience launches early next year the tours will be private two-way broadcasts. Each trip will cost between €60 and €120 (depending on the hourly rate of the guide), plus the cost of any purchases. Shipping is free.
The tour is designed to immerse shoppers in the local culture, with opportunities to ask questions and interact. There’s no obligation to buy anything: the guides aren’t working on commission and none of the artisans or shops included on the tour pays to be involved. A percentage of the proceeds also goes towards supporting Al Nour.
The hope is that giving people the opportunity to experience Moroccan culture and interact with local people will see money flow back into the shattered tourist economy.
“People are four times more likely to buy through a live video shopping experience [than traditional online shopping],” says Åkerström. “There’s something about looking at the person. You know your money is going directly to that person and you’re learning about the culture.”
Live shopping events have already taken off in Asia but the real proof that there’s money to be made here lies in this year’s launch of Instagram’s live shopping feature. Ultimately, Local Purse’s aim is to help local people such as Marrakech’s guides and artisans become more resilient by providing an alternative income stream – because if we’ve learned anything in 2020, it’s that nobody knows what the future will bring. The concept is due to be rolled out to other destinations, including Lima, Istanbul and Ho Chi Minh City early next year.
The second and final stop of this pilot tour is Koutoubia Herbal, a shop on the edge of the medina where solid bars of musk and amber are scooped out of giant glass bowls and their properties explained. Argan nuts are ground before our eyes. Our host, Loubna, with headphones pinned over her hijab, looks like she’s enjoying the opportunity to deliver her sales patter. As she talks, I’m able to browse the beautifully packaged, fixed-price products from the shop, which I can buy instantly (shipping included) in a panel at the bottom of my screen.
Since the start of the pandemic, Redouane says there’s been one all-consuming question from artisans and shop owners in Marrakech: “When are people coming back?” And it’s obvious from Loubna’s grin what Local Purse is bringing: hope.
• Private tours will launch in January 2021, starting with Marrakech, localpurse.com