Marrakesh: 'Saint Tropez Minus the Yachts'

Plan Azur

Still, all of this is just part of the business plan of Morocco's King Mohammed VI, one of the richest people in the world. As far as the Mamounia is concerned, the king holds a majority holding in the hotel through a number of intermediary companies. In fact, his companies also control about 6 percent of Morocco's entire GDP -- which is almost 15 times as much as Silvio Berlusconi holds in terms of Italy's GDP. As a private-sector entrepreneur, the king currently employs more than 30,000 people. And the stronger the Moroccan economy grows, the richer he gets.

The king lives like a celebrity himself; he loves jet-skiing, Ferraris and suits by Gianfranco Ferré. In early 2001, he struck upon the idea of transforming Marrakesh into a new celebrity capital and luxury destination for Europeans. He dreamt of enticing all the rich people he saw while on winter vacations in Courchevel to come to his city, instead. He also wanted to expand tourist offerings throughout Morocco, double visitor numbers and attract investors. The king dubbed his project "Plan Azur" and hoped to realize it by 2010.

Mohammed VI is no stranger to such development plans. Indeed, this holder of a doctorate in international law from a French university has had a hand in devising plans for fostering economic growth, improving foreign trade and helping the fishing industry from his royal palace in the capital city, Rabat.

Still, Plan Azur was an almost impossible undertaking. In 2000, Morocco only attracted about 4 million tourists each year. It had little infrastructure, few good roads and few flights in or out of the country. A year later, the 9/11 attacks sowed renewed fear of all things Arab across the world.

But the king's gamble has paid off. Marrakesh now has a new airport and freeway linking it to Casablanca. Foreign investors have been given cheap land, and they don't have to pay any tax on profits during their first three years in operation.

Saint Tropez Minus the Yachts

Karl Lagerfeld's dietician is currently building a beauty spa -- complete with helipad -- just outside the city. Its advertising pitch: "Come for 10 days, lose 10 years." Right next door, the emir of Qatar is investing $1.4 billion (€1 billion) into building one of the world's largest racetracks on a 380-hectare (940-acre) site. A few weeks ago, Prince Albert of Monaco laid the foundation stone for a huge hotel project administered by the country's SBM luxury hotel and entertainment company. A dozen other five-star hotels and apartment complexes for millionaires are on the drawing board.

In the very heart of North Africa, Morocco is building a temple of hedonism insulated from the surrounding Arab world. The centuries-old medina is now home to art galleries, night clubs and restaurants charging European prices. There's even a spin-off of Fouquet's, the legendary Parisian brasserie.

"Dreadful," Prince Fabrizio Ruspoli says as he sets down his espresso cup on a silver tray. "Terrible." The prince isn't thrilled about how Marrakesh is slowly becoming virtually indistinguishable from Saint Tropez -- minus just the yachts. "Thank God we don't have the sea, too," he quips. "That would be the final straw!" he says.

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