Instagram has made a tiny mountain town world-famous for its picturesque blue walls, and locals are cashing in

Harrison Jacobs / Business InsiderYoussef Khan, a lifelong resident of Chefchaouen, has opened a guesthouse to serve the tourist influx.
  • Chefchaouen, Morocco, has skyrocketed in popularity over the past five years thanks to the mountain city’s Instagrammable blue-painted houses and buildings.
  • While some travel writers have complained that the city has been “ruined by Instagram,” locals told Business Insider that the surge in popularity had jump-started its economy.
  • On a recent visit to Chefchaouen, I found that while tourists do come to take photos of themselves in “The Blue Pearl,” it hardly affects the city’s reputation as a friendly place to meet Moroccans and escape the bustle of bigger destinations like Marrakech or Fez.

On a cool January afternoon, I scaled a dirt path shaded by the limestone peaks of Morocco’s Rif Mountains. As I walked, an elderly woman pulled up water from a well peeking out of the cacti, while a teenager chased a few goats down the rocky mountainside. At the top, tourists and local families sat below the ruins of a mosque and watched the sun set over Chefchaouen.

If you’ve spent any significant time on the internet in the last half-decade, you’ve seen Chefchaouen. Though it’s a day’s drive from tourist hubs like Fez and Marrakech, the city has skyrocketed in fame thanks to its chief draw: It’s painted every shade of blue – periwinkle, cobalt, sky, royal, turquoise, baby blue, cyan, azure.

The city is a tourist destination for the Instagram age. Every alley is a new backdrop for tourists to pose in influencer-perfect shots.

Travel bloggers offer up Instagram maps for tourists to follow. Refinery29 described it as “the most Instagrammable city break you’ve never heard of.” Jack Morris (@DoYouTravel), a top influencer, even sells a photo-editing preset dedicated to the city. In 2015, Mark Zuckerberg used it to tout new Instagram features.

The number of photos tagged in Chefchaouen has nearly doubled, to over 445,000 now from about 250,000 in April, according to Fodor’s, which included the town on its list of places “ruined by Instagram,” citing “queues of people” waiting to get photos in certain locations.

But talk to locals, as I did last month, and you hear a different story. For those living in the blue-painted medina, the Instagram fame has created business opportunities where before there were few steady jobs and grinding poverty. Riads are being renovated, new inns have opened, locals have taken up tour-guiding, and restaurants are bustling.

As I watched the sunset, a 20-something Moroccan French teacher named Soquaina tapped me on the shoulder. A volunteer for the city’s tourism board, she was handing out surveys on what visitors thought of the town. When I brought up Instagram, she chuckled.

“Instagram and social media have a way of exaggerating everything,” Soquaina said. “This place is tranquil. A simple, beautiful place. People think Chefchaouen is one way, but really, it’s something very different.”

Here’s what “The Blue Pearl,” as it is known, is really like.

For the Instagram set, Chefchaouen may seem like a recent phenomenon, but the city’s history dates back over 500 years — it was founded in 1471 by Moulay Ali Ben Moussa Ben Rached El Alami.

The city was originally known as Chaouen, a Berber word meaning “horns” or “peaks,” because of the Rif Mountains overlooking it. In 1975, the name was changed to Chefchaouen, meaning “view of the peaks.”

The town’s most famous building isn’t blue. The kasbah, a fortress built by Alami to protect against the invading Portuguese, was the first structure in the settlement.

The mountainous geography around the city is stunning. In the early mornings, brisk air blows in from the Rif, and locals clad in woolen djellaba cloaks sip mint tea at cafes in the main square.

The city started getting its iconic look — whitewashed houses and tiled roofs — when Muslim and Jewish refugees fled to the city from Spain in 1494.

While there is no consensus on when or why the city turned blue, a common theory is that Jews arriving in the 15th century painted the Mellah, or Jewish Quarter, blue in honour of God. Others have said it was Jewish refugees in the 1930s who painted the city blue. Before then, much of the city was painted green.

Source: Lonely Planet

Chefchaouen’s medina, or old city, is built into the side of a mountain, so you are often walking up and down steep staircases that trace the topography.

One of the city’s greatest charms is its mix of Moroccan and Andalusian architecture, including red-tiled roofs, intricate wood carvings, and beautiful tilework.

I booked an apartment with Youssef Khan, who runs a small bed-and-breakfast with his family. During my stay, Khan was in the middle of exams for a graduate degree in human-rights law at the nearby Université Abdelmalek Essaadi.

Growing up in Chefchaouen, Khan has watched as the city has transformed. When he was young, he said, Europeans visited on summer holidays. Over the past decade, the crowd has changed to American, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean tourists who come all year long.

Though 40,000 people live in the city, only about 2,000 live in the blue-painted medina. Khan knows everyone. As we walked, he stopped to shake hands and say “salaam” to each person along the way.

Most tourists come for a day trip from Fez or Tangier, taking a few photos, browsing the souvenir shops, and heading back. The city doesn’t have many attractions aside from the blue walls, and the medina can be explored fully in a few hours. But stay a few days and you’ll get to know the people, Khan said, who are what make the medina special.

Unlike bustling cities like Marrakech or Tangier, Chefchaouen maintains a small-town vibe, regardless of the tourists. It’s a window into a Moroccan life that has existed for centuries.

Toward the bottom of the medina, Khan introduced me to Abdussalam Faran. Faran and his family have run the town oven for generations.

Chefchaouen is full of “famous” townspeople like Faran. Khan once stopped outside the door of an elderly painter who had been interviewed many times for his knowledge of the city. In Morocco, it’s customary to give an interview subject a tip, Khan explained. When I asked how much, he shrugged. “It might be very expensive — he’s very famous,” he said. The painter never answered the door.

Instead, we met with Abdelkhalak Ben Maymoun, an unofficial town historian who operates a library in the medina. Before I asked a question, he was tracing his lineage back 500 years. He is a descendant of Al-Faqih Ali Ben Maimun, a writer whose patron was the city’s founder. A plaque a few blocks away commemorates the history.

Ben Maymoun has been interviewed many times by journalists seeking to know about the town. He pulled out weathered magazines and printed web articles to show me, then a textbook-thick binder of printed papers. It is his history of Chefchaouen, which he has been working on for 25 years.

When I asked Ben Maymoun if I could photograph him, he happily obliged. He quickly arranged his library for the photograph, propping a printed copy of an article about him that an Arab-British reporter wrote several years ago on one side and his town history on the other. He then hammed it up for the camera.

Chefchaouen has seen many tourist waves, Ben Maymoun said. The first was when Spanish troops occupied the city in 1920, administering it until its independence in 1956. Before then, no Christians could enter.

From Spanish refugees in the 15th century to occupation 100 years ago, the city has a long history with Spain. Spanish tourists were the first to visit, and even today the city is packed during major Catholic holidays like Semana Santa and Christmas. Most Chefchaouen locals, Ben Maymoun said, speak some combination of Spanish, Arabic, Berber, and English.

When tourists started visiting, the medina was a place where a local would put a tourist up in their house and give them dinner for free. “Moroccan hospitality,” Ben Maymoun said.

In a curving alley off the main square, I met Hamid, a carpet seller who moved from Fez in the 1970s. When Hamid arrived, hippies had descended, thanks to the abundant cannabis fields nearby. Even today, tourists can’t avoid the constant offer of (illegal) hashish.

Today’s Insta-tourists are simply the latest wave, Khan said, though now they come in greater numbers and, he hopes, stay longer. Even on a quiet day, as I walked around the town, there were plenty blocking alleys for photos.

What differentiates this tourist wave from the past, Soquaina, the French teacher, said, is that now Moroccans are visiting. Twenty years ago, few Moroccans knew about the town.

That began changing when King Mohammed VI visited after the death of his father, Hassan II, in 1999. But the real change happened when the hit Moroccan TV show “Bnat Lalla Mennana,” about a conservative family living in the medina, aired in 2012. “When Moroccans saw it, we were like, ‘Wait, that’s in Morocco?'” she said.

Source: TV Time

The city grew in popularity through word of mouth, Ben Maymoun said. In the 1960s, tourists would talk about how they “discovered” some gorgeous mountain town and show their friends colour photographs.

But knowledge of the city was still limited because any photographer, reporter, or filmmaker needed a government permit to document the city. Smartphones made that impossible to enforce. “The smartphone and social media made it so much easier for people to see how beautiful it is,” Ben Maymoun said.

Today, the blue medina is used frequently to film TV shows, commercials, and movies. The Moroccan-American rapper French Montana last year shot the music video for his hit “Famous” in Chefchaouen.

Source: Morocco World News

Traditionally, Khan said, Chefchaouen residents made their living making handicrafts sold in the city and elsewhere. Often, the handmade leather bags, ornate copper lamps, and woolen shawls and cloaks found in souks all over Morocco come from Chefchaouen.

With so many people visiting for the day to take photos, locals have gotten creative. Three years ago, Ahmed Saadoune, a former taxi driver, turned his family home into a “museum” open to tourists for 5 dirhams, or about $US0.50. It was the influx of social-media tourists, he said, that convinced him the idea could work.

His home, which he said has been left mostly untouched, is a classic example of the town’s Andalusian, Morisco, and Arabic influences. His only additions are cultural items like an olive press, amphorae, a loom, and a bread basket. He said that while he is happy to explain the building’s history or the items’ functions, tourists are more interested in taking photos.

“All these people come and put photos of my house on Instagram and YouTube and Facebook. It’s famous now,” he said, beaming. “I have been able to fix my house and to have a business because of it.”

He said that he now makes two or three times what he made as a taxi driver and that his house had been visited by popular Middle Eastern actors and fashion models, as well as international politicians and dignitaries. He ushered me behind a white curtain to show me photos of him with them on his computer.

Saadoune said he was the only person with a “photo museum,” but I saw a few similar signs scattered in the medina. By the mountainside, Moroccans, dressed in traditional Berber clothing or with an ostrich or a peacock, tried to coax tourists into taking a photo for a few dirhams.

As locals have long learned English or French to better serve tourists, some are also picking up Chinese. As my partner and I walked through the medina, a teenager named Mohammed called out “nĭ hăo” and carried on a conversation in perfect Mandarin with her. He said he had learned entirely by practicing with Chinese tourists. As we walked away, a Chinese man handed him a notebook full of new Chinese characters to learn.

Despite the influx of tourists, life continues untouched for many residents. Next to the weekday vegetable market is the shopfront of a baker named Otman. As his family has done for generations, he fries sfenj, a traditional doughnut, in the mornings for busy students and workers. At night, he fries churros. Few tourists buy from him, but he said he believes that as more come, eventually they will. “Inshallah,” he said, meaning “God willing.”

For some, like Mohammed Saddoune, the tourist boom has helped him indirectly. “Years ago, the only job in the city was fixing things,” said Saddoune, who used to work as a carpenter with his father. In decades past, he said, many locals left to seek work elsewhere.

With tourism thriving, there are more jobs in the city for residents, allowing them to stay close to home. Two years ago, Saddoune opened a convenience store and bakery to serve them.

Khan pointed out a seemingly endless stream of houses being converted into bed-and-breakfasts and existing inns doing renovations to spruce up before summertime. “People have money to fix things now and to make it more beautiful,” Khan said. “It is still traditional, but it is new, how the tourists like it.”

At the edge of the medina, Khan took me to a traditional house being renovated. After the family’s patriarch passed away, Khan said, the man’s sons could not decide how to divide the house. So rather than sell it, they are converting it into a bed-and-breakfast.

In the house, Khan introduced me to Ahmed El Kabari, a craftsman who works on many of the hotels and guesthouses in the city. El Kabari is highly regarded among locals for his knowledge of traditional Arabic, Berber, and Morisco design motifs. These days, El Kabari said, he’s very busy. There’s always a new hotel or guesthouse that wants his services.

Harrison Jacobs / Business InsiderAhmed El Kabari and Abl Wahid Sekhira, a painter.

Ben Maymoun summed up the attitude of the city best. “Thanks be to God, the people of Chefchaouen are welcoming, friendly, and accepting of all different types of people,” he said. “My wish is that by 2020 it is the most visited place in the world.”

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