Exotic Marrakesh charms British holidaymakers

Winston Churchill loved the view from his hotel balcony so much that he described it as "paintaceous". Mick Jagger and Brian Jones were among its famous visitors in the late 1960s. Lately, pop stars such as Blur and (P) Diddy have hung out there and Kate Moss and Sadie Frost like it for the shopping.

Nowadays, the dusty, labyrinthine streets of Marrakesh, in Morocco, are thronging with ordinary Britons on short breaks. Marrakesh has become the fashionable holiday destination of 2005. Lastminute.com, the online travel agency, said short holidays to the north African city have risen by 410 per cent this summer.

Marrakesh's appeal centres on its accessibility and foreignness. Flights from London take three and a half hours, yet tourists encounter a streetscape and culture entirely different from Europe. Snake-charmers, monkey-keepers, acrobats and story-tellers vie with healers and fakirs for space in the market square, the "Place of the Dead", while shopkeepers invite passers-by into dimly lit shops and hawkers sell dried fruits and nuts.

The desire for Marrakesh's alien sights, sounds and smells underlines a trend towards more adventurous and far-flung destinations. While in the past, the British were content to sample the cafés of Paris, the canals and nightlife of Amsterdam or the vibrant culture of Barcelona, 21st-century travellers want to explore more challenging cities. Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that tourism to eastern Europe rose sharply last year: trips to Bulgaria and Poland almost doubled. Further afield, visits to China soared by 43 per cent, to India by 33 per cent and to Mexico by 21 per cent.

By contrast, the number of trips to Spain rose by less than 1 per cent, while trips to France fell 3 per cent and Portugal slipped by almost 5 per cent.

Travel agents believe the reason is partly price. While established destinations such as France charge western European prices, a two-night city break to Marrakesh was being advertised on the internet yesterday for £231. Inside air-conditioned hotels, holidaymakers enjoy large rooms with mosaic walls, swimming pools and friendly staff; outside there is endless sunshine and a head-on culture clash.

The medina, the old city, contains the souk, the noisy, tightly packed bazaar where foreigners haggle for hand-made goods such as necklaces, leather belts and embroidered kaftans. One recent British visitor likened it to "Covent Garden on speed".

North Africa generally has experienced a surge in package holidays in the past few years. Lastminute said summer breaks in Tunisia were up 612 per cent this summer on 2004. Greece was the company's top package holiday destination, followed by Egypt.

Sean Tipton, spokesman for Abta, said that although short- haul trips still accounted for 90 per cent of travel from Britain, long-haul was a rapidly expanding area of travel.

North Africa and India were popular because they were so alien, he said. "They are radically different culturally and the more adventurous travellers are looking for that - they don't want to go to an identikit Europe with better weather. Morocco is very fashionable at the moment. Marrakesh in particular is seen as the place to go.

"If you go back to the 1970s you wouldn't have got more than about 12 million trips from the UK," said Mr Tipton.

"Now there are 42 million trips a year. People are used to going abroad. If you go back to the 1970s, not many people took foreign holidays: people tended to stay at home."

The hotspots

EUROPE

* Czech Republic 0.7m

* France 11.6m

* Germany 2.3m

* Greece 2.7 m

* Ireland 4.1m

* Italy 2.9m

* Spain 13.8m

* Turkey 1.1m

OUTSIDE EUROPE

* Australia 0.5m

* China 0.2m

* Egypt 0.3m

* India 0.6m

* Mexico 0.3m

* Thailand 0.3m

* United States 4.1m

ONS figures for foreign trips 2004

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