Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way
Marrakech Express and Orient Express: easyJet expands
Saturday 04 March 2006
Try this. Lie on your front in your underwear, flat on the floor. Ask a friend to stand on your calves, grab your arms and yank your torso upwards until your muscles, and you, scream. Next, as you quiver in a heap after this punishment, they should find an old scouring pad (coarse sandpaper would do, at a push), and scrape away at every inch of exposed skin. Now you know what awaits passengers on easyJet's latest venture: into Africa.
I'm not suggesting that you should anticipate this kind of physical ordeal on board the no-frills airline. But when easyJet announced on Wednesday that it would start flying from Gatwick to Marrakech in July, I thought I should visit the city to find out what you can expect in return for your £62 return.
Ahmed is your man, providing you are male and turn up at the Hammam el-Bacha between 4am and noon, or from 7.30pm to 11pm. Between these times, the women take over for goodness-knows-what strange rituals in this vast, gloomy temple to rigorous cleanliness, with something of the air of a Victorian slaughterhouse. In exchange for 70 dirhams (under £5, or the price of an easyJet cup of tea and sandwich), and a generous tip for leaving you short of needing hospital treatment, you emerge into the cacophony and colour of Marrakech feeling like a new person, or at least a substantially re-modelled one.
A long way, in every sense, from the first easyJet destination, Glasgow (and no, it's not fair to suggest that in some unsavoury parts of Scotland's largest city you may find yourself re-modelled late on a Saturday night). Besides the Marrakech Express from Gatwick, easyJet is launching the Orient Express - a link between Luton and Asia. The city is Istanbul, on the European side of the Bosphorus, but the airport easyJet will use is on the Asian side of the straits: the city's secondary airport, Sabiha Gokcen. At more than 1,500 miles, this will be the longest no-frills route from the UK, with a flying time just short of four hours. If you feel like a good rub down after the long flight, may I recommend the Cemberlitas Hammam? The executives of the traditional airlines will be feeling rather roughed-up, too, as Britain's no-frills airlines start to break out of Europe.
UNTIL NOW, easyJet, Ryanair and the rest have been content to devise ever-more-arcane routes within Europe. British Airways has been quietly moving from flights of an hour or two to "mid-haul" destinations three or four hours away (see page 9 for the latest crop). Two reasons for this strategy: passengers appreciate the extra comfort and inflight service on a longer flight; and it was thought that the no-frills airlines were not interested in flying outside Europe, because their competitive edge erodes as flight times get longer. But the existing airlines flying to Marrakech and Istanbul, as well as those serving destinations such as the Greek islands and Tunisia, will be alarmed by the easyJet move.
At present, there is competition to Marrakech from Gatwick on Atlas Blue (the low-cost subsidiary of Royal Air Maroc) and on GB Airways, flying on behalf of British Airways. GB and Royal Air Maroc also fly from Heathrow, and GB flies from Manchester. The lowest return fare I could find was £160; easyJet will slice nearly £100 from this. The starting price of £62 return is nothing like enough to make money on the three-hour flight, and easyJet will be anticipating an average fare of around £150 to make the route pay. The no-frills airline will also be faster than some of GB Airways' services, which stop en route in Fes or Casablanca, adding an hour or more to the journey time.
Expect a swift response from BA, cutting its existing lowest price to £129 return or even £99 in order to compete with easyJet. Other Moroccan destinations, such as Tangier and Casablanca, will quickly be snapped up by no-frills airlines. Already, stag parties are planning weekends away in Marrakech, no doubt beginning at the Hammam al-Bacha.
The excellent taxi drivers of Marrakech will be looking forward to the new arrivals, though judging from the following exchange this week they could improve their geographic knowledge of the world before indulging in banter: Driver: "Where are you from?"
Driver: "Ah, I have relatives in London."
Tourist: "Oh really, which part?"
TAKE A HIKE TO YOUR BED
One beneficiary of the influx of visitors to Morocco could be Mike McHugo, the visionary adventure tour operator who created the Kasbah du Toubkal - a hilltop palace in the Atlas mountains that featured in last week's Traveller. His "Berber Hospitality Centre" has been a model for sustainable tourism, creating jobs in remote communities and providing a first-rate experience for guests.
His latest venture, coincidentally, opens tomorrow - three weeks ahead of schedule. The Toubkal Lodge has been built in the valley west of the existing property, to provide a "sister" place to stay. "It gives guests who want to hike in the area the option to stay somewhere different," says Mr McHugo. There is a catch, however: with no proper road, guests are expected to walk in and walk out. The hike from the Kasbah du Toubkal takes four hours, including a traverse of a 2,500m pass, but is a less exacting experience than you get from Ahmed the hammam man.
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