Many tourists come not just for sand baths but also for breath-taking sunsets over Merzouga’s shifting sand dunes in the Moroccan desert.
As the morning sun rises over the golden dunes of Erg Chebbi, holes are dug out for tourists wanting to bury themselves in the sand. Decades ago, tribal nomads settled here, living a traditional desert existence that has now had to adapt to the prevailing circumstances. The formerly nomadic tribesmen have for years been running hotels and restaurants in Merzouga, a key stop on the Moroccan tourist trail on the edge of a sea of sand dunes. Now however they are even turning to the sands themselves to attract visitors.
The dunes tower over the small community in south-eastern Morocco, where the Berber Ait Atta tribe now makes a brisk living from tourism.
The idea is that for around 10 minutes, a person is buried up to its neck in the hot sand for therapy against rheumatism, lumbago, polyarthritis and some other skin disorders.
This therapy is said to have the same effect as a sauna session, helping purge the body of poisonous toxins, according to the tribesmen. Making a living was not always easy for the descendants of the Ait Atta nomads, and over the decades the sons and daughters of those who roamed the desert on camels have had to attune themselves to more modern ways. They once accumulated riches from trans-Saharan commerce, but now all that remains of this past is a road sign pointing towards Timbuktu, some 52 days away by camel.
Their way of life ended after Morocco became a French protectorate in 1912, and with the development of mining in the region that resulted in the emergence of urban centres. These tribes once nomadic had to find a new livelihood, turned to cultivating date palms and tourism in the second half of the past century. Visitors generally and / or in search of a cure do not come only from abroad: many local who firmly believe in the power of the desert sands arrive on the spot.
“I really feel much better, and each year I come back here to spend a week,” said sciatica sufferer Ali Kallamouche from the central town of Morocco.
A sand bath at Merzouga costs up to 10 euros ($13), and many come not just for the cure but also for the fascinating sunsets over the erg’s shifting sand dunes 12 miles long, 3 miles wide and up to 500 foot high.
Camel safaris and stays in the desert under tents with the region’s Berber tribes are still a tourist staple.
“People come for sand baths and eventually to taste the local dishes made using local plants and herbs”.
Tourism is a cornerstone of Morocco’s economy — contributing 10 percent of gross domestic product.
According to market experts, it is also growing, thanks to the development of wellness tourism such as this one described here.
In September, Morocco hosted the Global Spa and Wellness Summit where industry experts said the sector expanded globally last year by 12.5 percent, generating almost $500 billion.
Morocco topped the Middle East and North Africa list in health tourism, with the industry growing more than 67 percent since 2007.
In Merzouga, more and more people are signing up for a hot sand soak at the height of summer and other businesses, including those rooted in the recent past, are thriving as a result.
Ali sells camel milk which he insists does wonders for diabetes, anaemia and digestive tract problems.
“People come from all over the world to Merzouga for sand baths, and that helps us promote other products”.