Tangier is home to Morocco's leading institute of higher education in tourism, ISITT, of the Ministry of Tourism. Now in its 40th year, ISITT has an alumni list of thousands, many of whom have made careers in tourism, Morocco's most important source of foreign exchange.
Invited to make a presentation on the Legation at ISITT's recent conference on cultural tourism, in particular linking tourism to Tangier's cultural heritage, we were happy to take our slide show on the road. This is a recurring theme; last fall we attended a similar gathering focusing on the city's architectural heritage, and at the end of the month there will be yet another workshop on a related theme – sustainable tourism. We tend to be preaching to the converted.
We were able to continue our "re-branding" effort, reminding Tangier audiences that TALIM includes a museum, but that our vocation is much broader. People are beginning to realize that the Legation is a cultural center in the widest sense of the term.
That said, we still have a long way to go before the majority of visitors to Tangier enter our doors. Yes, we're in most of the quality guide books (Lonely Planet, Frommer's, etc.), but the great mass of tourists may never open their pages or knock on our door.
Instead, they step off the ship and immediately fall into the hands of faux guides, men who purport to be tour guides, and who steer tourists to commission-paying souvenir shops, often actually preventing their clients from entering our museum. These fakers walk by the Legation and share wisdom like "first American consulate everywhere…" "American Legation: 7 doors, on the left, and on the right…" Of course, they don't make use of any of those doors; after these pertinent facts are rattled off, the fake guide force-marches the tourists off to some bazaar. Someday, I'm going to write The History of the American Legation, According to the Faux Guides. For the comedy shelves.
But seriously, with the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in its port redevelopment, Tangier needs to make the most of its disappearing infrastructure of historic buildings so that visitors have something to see.
This past weekend, Tangier celebrated the (re)opening of Bab Marsa, variously known as Borj Hajoui, a restored Portuguese fort at the entrance of the medina from Tangier's old port.
I say (re)opening, since I recall attending another opening last year, when the fortress, which had fallen into a sorry state, was proudly shown off by its restorers.
In the meantime, the use of Bab Marsa has been the bone of contention between two well-intentioned camps, and the refurbished historic doors were even prey to arson. Hence the (re)opening. Our partner in the medina women's literacy program – FTAM, Tangier professionals dedicated to the preservation of the medina – has championed the use of Bab Marsa by a collection of neighborhood arts associations, whose acrobats, artists, and gnaoua musicians enlivened this weekend's activities (photo below courtesy Najib Andaloussi).
A parallel group of cultural activists, which includes Confluences Musicales – organizers of the excellent Tarab Tanger world traditional music festival – wants to establish a more upmarket center for traditional music, including a museum of musical instruments associated with Morocco's rich musical heritage.
Sometimes it feels reminiscent of the characters in Biblical spoof Life of Brian, torn between the rival JPF vs. PFJ, who instead of fending off the Romans, wind up fighting each other.
But Morocco has faced this bottom-up vs. top-down debate before, and its experience of the restoration of the medina of Fez is a subject of international best-practice focus. Tangier's medina and remaining inventory of historic buildings are miniscule in comparison to that of Fez, but the issue of participatory development of communities is obviously a hot topic.
And the debate among well-intentioned opposing camps over the future of Bab Marsa/Borj Hajoui shows that cultural heritage is not just a question for tourism, but for citizens concerned about the preserving the vestiges of Tangier's unique international – and Moroccan – heritage.