Morocco earthquake: When can you go on holiday to an area affected by a natural disaster?

More than 2,000 people were killed in the earthquake that struck Morocco late on 8 September. But as many remote, mountainous areas were cut-off by the disaster and have not yet been reached by rescuers, the death toll is likely to rise considerably.

Understandably, some people due to visit Morocco on holiday in the coming days and weeks will be rethinking their plans. It’s likely that some trekking holidays in the High Atlas Mountains over the coming days and weeks will be postponed or cancelled, with a number of roads blocked, and many communities in urgent need of rescue efforts.

However, much of Morocco remains perfectly safe for travel. Casablanca, Fes, and Tangier, as well as Essaouira on the coast, remain largely unaffected. Marrakech, too, has thankfully not been too badly damaged.

The Morocco earthquake was not the first disaster to overshadow the summer holiday season. Parts of Tenerife, Rhodes, southern France and some of Portugal’s Alentejo and Algarve regions were severely damaged by wildfires as Europe experienced record-breaking heatwaves.

British holidaymakers were most affected when fires reached tourist resorts in Rhodes and led to hurried evacuations. Locals, however, suffered the destruction of their homes, businesses and communities.

Separately, in North America, Canada‘s Northwest Territories and British Colombia, and the island of Maui in the US state of Hawaii, have also faced devastating fires. 

And yet tourist-dependent areas will need visitors to return – but when will they be welcome.

Anger over tourists returning too early

Tourists swimming and snorkelling in Maui, close to areas devastated by the worst US wildfires in over a century, caused immense controversy.  Some residents posted about their frustrations on social media, sharing videos of people enjoying holidays while the death toll continued to rise.  

There was similar anger in some online circles in late July, when tour operators slashed prices for holidays to northern Rhodes, even as they flew home customers whose trips were affected by the wildfires elsewhere on the Greek island. 

However, in both Maui and Rhodes there were also people calling for holidaymakers to continue coming. In Tenerife, authorities expressed thanks to locals and tourists for their conduct as firefighters worked to contain the blaze in central areas of the island. There will be similar appeals for tourists to carry on with their Morocco holidays when they can do so safely. 

However, in both Maui and Rhodes, there were also people calling for holidaymakers to continue coming.

In Tenerife, too, authorities have expressed thanks to locals and tourists for their conduct as firefighters have worked to contain the blaze in central areas of the island. The fires are thought to be Tenerife’s worst in 40 years. 

Knowing whether – and, crucially, when – to visit a country that’s emerging from (or still in the grip of) disaster isn’t always clear-cut.

Check government advice

Governments will urge caution – but may not explicitly advise against taking that planned holiday.  The lack of official advice against travel to the parts of Rhodes in which wildfires were blazing created a conundrum for travellers whose holidays had not been cancelled, or who were travelling independently. It meant that, if they didn’t go, they were likely to lose the money they’d spent on the trip (travel insurance policies may allow you to make a claim if you cancel a journey due to a change in UK Foreign Office advice). 

Conversely, official advice about places affected by natural disaster or conflict routinely ignores the nuances of a situation and can last longer than necessary.  

As was seen in Maui, local sentiment can be strongly divided when it comes to whether tourists should or should not visit in the aftermath of a disaster.  

Recovery efforts continue from the Morocco earthquake, and the fires that swept Maui, with resources and accommodation desperately needed to aid residents, many of whom have been left homeless. It’s natural that holidaymakers enjoying themselves while these situations develop could draw ire.

Recovery efforts from the fires that swept Maui continue, with resources and accommodation desperately needed to aid residents, many of whom have been left homeless. It’s natural that holidaymakers sunning themselves while this situation develops could draw ire.

Tourism can help recovery

But while the idea of travelling to a disaster zone may seem distasteful to some, once the situation has stabilised, tourism can play a vital role in helping a place to recover.

That’s especially true of destinations such as Rhodes, Tenerife, and Maui, all of which are dependent on tourism income. If people were to simply stop going to a crisis-hit destination, many small businesses would struggle to survive, making an already bad situation worse. 

So, is it selfish to holiday in a place suffering a crisis? Or is it the right thing to do? 

RHODES, GREECE - JULY 30: An empty restaurant at lunch time in the old town on July 30, 2023 in Rhodes, Greece. While Rhodes town itself wasn't directly affected by fire damage or smoke, many of the tourists that drive the local economy are gone leaving a hole in many of the businesses finances that rely on their trade. The fires in the south of the island of Rhodes prompted preventive evacuations of tens of thousands of tourists in the middle of the high summer season last week. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
An empty restaurant at lunch time in the old town in Rhodes on 30 July, 2023 (Photo: Getty)

Seek out local advice

Listening to local voices is key.  

Talking to a local holiday operator – one that’s rooted in the destination and bases decisions on what local people have to say – really helps. Crises are often localised, with large areas of a country still safe to visit. Responsible Travel works with several hundred local operators and their guides around the world, enabling them to give reliable advice on where to go – and where to avoid – and how to visit in a way that provides maximum benefit to the community.  

That local knowledge is also vital in knowing how soon to visit. Unfortunately, official guidance can sometimes be overcautious when the circumstances on the ground may already be stable and safe. That can affect people’s ability to get reasonably priced travel insurance, or to find it at all.

Every situation is different. Some destinations will have the wealth and resources to respond and rebuild faster than others. Some are more dependent on tourism. And, of course, there may be no choice but to avoid some destinations where there is ongoing conflict. But wherever disaster strikes, the return of tourists when it’s safe can be a vital stepping-stone towards economic recovery. 

For example, twenty years since the invasion of Iraq began, travellers can now join cultural tours of the country’s rich historical sites, from the capital, Baghdad, to the Kurdistan region in the north.  

It’s a hugely positive move after years of conflict and instability. 

Spend money locally

If you do travel to a destination that has weathered disaster, the most important thing you can do is to spend your money locally. Many resorts in popular destinations are foreign-owned. Most of their profits leave the country. And while they do provide jobs for local people, these tend to be low-paid roles. 

Responsible Travel’s partners – several of whom offer package holidays for reassurance – ensure that they use locally owned accommodations and restaurants, and local guides and activity providers, as much as possible. That means that much more of the money from your holiday reaches the local economy, where it can really make a difference when it counts. 

Rob Perkins is a writer at Responsible Travel