Tourists often fall victim to scams when traveling abroad. You’re in a unfamiliar place, with an unfamiliar culture, and possibly a language you don’t understand. While visiting Morocco, we had the opportunity to observe some of the most common tactics used to persuade tourists into handing over money or overpaying for goods.
Before we get into the list of most common scams and how to avoid them, I would like to clarify a few things.
First, Morocco is a very safe country to visit. We visited the country with an 8 month old and felt perfectly safe, even at night. In fact, it is ranked by the US State Department as a Level 1 (Exercise Normal Precautions). For comparison, many popular European countries (France, Spain, Italy, and Germany) are ranked as Level 2 (Exercise Increased Precautions).
The people of Morocco are some of the most kind and friendly people who we have ever met. The hospitality and warm welcome that we received was outstanding. Unfortunately, there are some people who use this to take advantage of tourists. It’s easy to fall for a scam if you genuinely believe the other person is trying to help you.
Finally, Morocco is a relatively poor country that is still labeled as developing according to the IMF (International Monetary Fund). With that, you have thousands of people competing for tourism dollars. If they don’t make enough money in a day, their family could go without their next meal or roof over their heads. I’m not justifying shady approaches to earning a buck, but consider what you would do to take care of your family in the same situation. This mindset makes it easy for me to accept and not get worked up when I interact with a person who is trying to get a few dollars (or in this case, Dirham) off me.
The Medina (old city) of Marrakesh is a maze. Many of the passageways are covered and there are few easily identifiable landmarks to help guide your way. Unfortunately, this opens up the opportunity for locals to take advantage of disoriented tourists.
Nearly every day, we had people stop us and offer to help point us in the right direction. While we did encounter locals who genuinely wanted to help us, we found that an equal number of people wanted to lead us the wrong way.
As I mentioned above, everyone is competing for money. The souks are literally a maze, and some areas get more tourist traffic than others. Some shop owners pay people to direct tourists down certain alleyways to improve their chances of getting more visitors to pass their shops. Usually, the directions are technically correct, but you’ll end up taking the long way.
Solution: We were fortunate enough to use our GPS on our phone to help guide us. It wasn’t perfect, but we could at least tell what direction we were headed.
If you do need to stop for directions, we found the best approach is to ask a shop owner or restaurant who you have just done business with. Since they already have your money, they have less motivation to send you the wrong way. Also, if you are unsure, ask a few people for the same directions. If they all point you the same way, you should be good to go.
We also encountered many seemingly helpful strangers letting us know that the museum or palace nearby was closed. Like clockwork, they usually offer to take you to a nearby shop or restaurant to kill time until it reopens. The hope was that we would spend some money there.
Solution: Trust your guidebook. If it says the attraction will be open, it is very unlikely that you will arrive and find it closed. The best approach is to go to the location and see for yourself or ask someone you can trust like the staff at your hotel.
Handing You Merchandise
Scenario…. You are looking around a shop. The shop owner invites you to take a closer look at an item and hands it to you. Seems innocent enough, but once you have the item in your hands, it will be hard to give it back. It’s not like you can just walk away.
This is a very common tactic for street vendors in the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa. One street vendor was bold enough to try and place a toy that he was selling in Finn’s hand. Fortunately, big brother is an experienced traveler and quickly stepped in between them with a quick “NO!” (proud parent moment right there!).
Solution: If you don’t have a genuine interest in a product, don’t take the item. A good strategy is to put your hands behind your back and lean in for a closer look. That way, you can avoid being rude but not end up holding something you don’t want. If you do find yourself holding an item and the shopkeeper wont take it back. Politely place it on a nearby shelf and walk away. This is much more difficult to do with a street vendor.
Taxi Ride to Nowhere
Most of the Medina is closed to vehicular traffic except motorcycles. If you are staying in or close to the Medina, you will be able to walk to most sites. If you need to get around outside of the Medina, taxis are readily available and very cheap.
Some taxi drivers will tell you that they are not allowed to take you to your exact destination. Instead, they offer to drop you off at another location that is a short walk away.
This is very common when trying to return to Jemaa el-Fnaa. One driver told us that he wasn’t allowed to enter the square and could drop us off nearby. We didn’t know any better, but quickly found out that this was not true. Taxis are allowed to enter the main square. Turns out that the drop off location was a friend’s shop with whom the driver had an arrangement.
Solution: Be very clear where you want to go. Show them on a map from your guidebook and let them know that you don’t want to stop anywhere else.
This is more of a way of life than a scam, but still something to be aware of. Most items are priced at 3 to 4 times what the shop owner is willing to accept. Nearly everything is negotiable, but I have my limits. Personally, I won’t waste my time negotiating over an item that is only a couple dollars. Better to save your energy for the big ticket items. After a full day in the souks, you will be exhausted.
Solution: Prepare yourself to negotiate. Just be courteous and have fun. It’s all part of the experience. Let the kids try their hand at negotiating too!
As a tourist, you are likely to take hundreds of photos during your stay. But not every photo is free. Jemaa el-Fnaa especially is full of amazing sights and spectacles….. snake charmers, monkeys, dancers and musicians in traditional Berber garb. They will lure you in and encourage you to take pictures or videos. Just keep in mind that they will expect to be paid. Even shop owners may want a small payment to photograph their shop or merchandise.
Solution: Make sure to negotiate a price before you snap the photo.