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Celebrating Earth Day in Rabat, Morocco

Posted by Richard Hammond at 07:08 on Thursday 13 May 2010

The City of Rabat was one of 6 cities chosen by the UN to celebrate Earth Day. Photo: Alex RinslerThe City of Rabat was one of 6 cities chosen by the UN to celebrate Earth Day. Photo: Alex RinslerAlex Rinsler witnesses the 40th anniversary of Earth Day in Rabat, Morocco

The 22nd April marked the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, launched in 1970 to raise awareness for the Earth’s environment. Over 170 countries celebrate this annually, and this year six cities were marked out by the UN to lead the festivities: New York, Washington, Calcutta, Tokyo, Buenos Aires and Rabat.

Rabat is not perhaps an obvious choice, but both tourism and the environment are serious business in Morocco and such prominence in the Earth Day celebrations was a big coup for the country. King Mohamed VI has led the way towards aligning the burgeoning tourism industry with a broader environmental agenda, and chose the Earth Day to launch a National Charter for the Environment and Sustainable Development, the first of its kind in the Arab world, in a bid to have renewable energy account for 42% of total power use by 2020.

Rabat's central souks are located in the Medina Kadeema (old city). Photo: Alex RinslerRabat's central souks are located in the Medina Kadeema (old city). Photo: Alex RinslerThere's no doubting the need – currently 97% of Morocco’s energy requirements are imported to the country, and their annual oil bill rose by nearly 70% from 2007-8. Tourism is seen as a key asset to the nation’s economic development and a pathway to wean itself off a heavy dependence on agriculture, which consumes 80% of the country’s water but provides only 12% of its GDP.

With this in mind, the week-long Earth Day celebrations climaxed on the 24th with an outdoor festival, bringing together the homespun pop stars (including ska/reggae band Hoba Hoba Spirit and rappers Fnaïre), celebrities, sportsmen and activists alongside representation from the WWF, Greenpeace and the UN. Some 10,000 people enjoyed the show at the OLM-Souissi stage, and coverage was streamed live to the country’s two major TV channels. From where we were standing we could see four generations having a great time, and while the earnest speeches in English, Arabic, Portuguese and French passed many by, this was clearly an important date in the city’s calendar.

Tree-shaped posters all over Rabat encourage people to mobilise for the sake of the environment: to recycle, conserve water and be more energy efficient. Rabat itself is a surprisingly green city, with a number of parks and open spaces. Palm-lined boulevards downtown evoke the French colonial past, and the central Ibn Sina park is a haven for joggers and families. It’s quite a place to people watch and with the proximity of the Royal Palace these areas are protected by security and kept astonishingly clean.

Rabat all too often falls off the tourist map in favour of Marrakesh, Fez, Casablanca, Essaouira and Agadir. But it has its fair share of history: Abu Yusuf Ya'qub al-Mansur, the Almohad caliph who moved his empire to Rabat in the 12th century, built the city walls, the Chellah gardens, the imposing Hassan tower which, if completed, would have then formed part of the largest mosque in the Arab world. He also laid foundation to what’s now the beautiful Kasbah des Oudayas, a labyrinthine sprawl of blue and white houses that peek over the Atlantic Ocean, converging on a secluded garden where students play guitars and the world seems at peace.

Notable too about Rabat is the medina and souk, with a strangely befitting geometric iron roof. The atmosphere generally was very calm, and it was refreshing to not to be hassled too much by vendors, a marked contrast to other cities.

Close to $1 billion of investment is transforming much of the sea front into a playground for the rich, including a marina for private yachts, golf courses and luxury hotels. The city itself is gearing up to accommodate such investment - Rabat will have its own tramway before the end of 2010, but until then, getting round is a little tricky without a car or taxi.

Tourism, the official version at least, is a vehicle in Morocco for promoting the environmentally conscious agenda, key to making the economy more sustainable. It makes sense that the Earth Day celebrations came to Rabat – in many ways I gained more insight about Morocco here than elsewhere. Cosmopolitan, welcoming, traditional and proud of nation and culture, changing quickly but building around 1,000 years of history – and working hard to distinguish itself in the Arab world and beyond. With a train to Casablanca every 30 minutes and eight trains a day to Marrakech, it’s well worth a visit.

We stayed: at the The stylish l’Amphitrite Palace Hotel, Rabat. Photo: Alex RinslerThe stylish l’Amphitrite Palace Hotel, Rabat. Photo: Alex RinslerL'Amphitrite Palace Hotel – a flagship luxury hotel on the beach at Skhirat. Stone’s throw from the beach and a beautiful pool, great staff. Best in the off-peak season when you can enjoy the solitude of the location.

We ate: lunch at the Cosmopolitan – family run restaurant serving French traditional cuisine. Great service with a nice terrace and a good choice of wines available. Situated just off the main road, however, so not the quietest location.

We ate: dinner at Le Ziryab, traditional Moroccan cuisine in a sumptuous Riadh. Quality of the food was very high and the lamb tagine particularly good; geared however for the affluent tourist so the price tag might put you off.

To travel by train and ferry from London to Tangiers (and onwards to Rabat) see our detailed Rail Journey Planner: Train from London to Tangiers

For more information on Morocco see the website of the Moroccan Tourist Board.

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