Wherever you go on holiday, there will always be someone willing to scam you. Whether it’s traffic officers in South Africa trying to fine you for non-existent road offences, fake saffron sellers in India, or the good old broken taxi meter excuse heard all over the world. Morocco is no different, and in particular, scams in Marrakech are something you should be wary of.
Yet it seems to us that Marrakech gets a fair bit of bad press regarding this, more than any other destination that we’ve been to. Is it because we’re more sensitive to Morocco given our love for the country, or is it because there’s almost an industry of tricks and scams?
Over the years we’ve learnt about many Marrakech scams the hard way, so thought it was about time to share some of the most common tricks that have been tried on us.
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Top Scams in Marrakech
1. The Helpful Local #1 – ‘Free’ Directions
Out of all the scams in Marrakech this one really makes my blood boil. Why? Because it erodes trust and has you being suspicious of anyone who offers assistance or directions. Most Moroccans are genuinely friendly and helpful to lost-looking tourists, but there are a few who are out to make money from your disadvantage.
It pretty much works like this.
You’re walking through the souks, camera slung around neck, copious bags of souvenirs in one hand, map in the other. You stop for a second to get your bearings and look at the map. It’s only been a second, maybe two, and….BAM…there’s the “helpful local”, asking if they can assist with directions. They are friendly and offer to show you the way. They don’t want anything for their time, just the opportunity to practise their English. If you aren’t firm with them at this point, you’ll have yourself an unofficial guide, taking you the most long-winded obscure route to your destination, and guess what? When you get there, they will want payment. You will of course initially refuse. But “helpful local” suddenly becomes “loud and obnoxious local”, causing a scene and trying to intimidate you into paying him. A crowd is now gathering as he flits between English and Darija (Moroccan Arabic).
You pay to get out of there quick.
Some ways you can avoid this from happening:
- Look confident. Even if you haven’t got a clue where you are, walk with confidence. Try and keep the map hidden away. These “helpful locals” can spot a lost tourist a mile off.
- Politely decline. If you are approached by someone offering to give you directions, politely, but firmly decline with a simple “La, Shukran” (No, thank you). Keep declining even if they start to walk with you. We have started clearly saying “no guide” too, as it is illegal in Morocco to guide without a licence.
- Find the Tourist Police. If the “helpful local” persists, find the Tourism police (usually several to be found in the main square Djemaa el Fna) and report the incident – as per above, it is illegal to guide without a licence.
- Ask a shop or stall holder for directions. Generally speaking they will not want to leave their shop where they can earn far more money.
If you truly are lost and are at your wits end, then by all means take “helpful local” up on their offer but go into it knowing that despite what they say to the contrary, they will want payment.
Yet remember, not all “helpful locals” are out to scam you in Marrakech. I get quite abrupt with persistent offers of ‘free’ help and once snapped at a man who stopped to offer us directions outside the souks. It turned out to be a genuine offer of help and I was mortified I’d been rude.
2. The Helpful Local #2 – the Tannery Trail
Yep, not a very imaginative title, but “helpful local #2” is quite similar to “helpful local #1”, just with a slight twist. This was the first scam that we fell victim to on our inaugural visit to Marrakech, and it still annoys me nearly a decade later.
It involves the tanneries.
We wanted to visit the tanneries and had declined all offers of a guide since we had plenty of maps. How hard could it be? Of course we got completely lost. Marrakech maps all seem to be slightly different, and none really give a true reflection of the street layout.
Needless to say it didn’t take long until…BAM…“helpful local #2” was there offering us directions “all for free”. We knew we were getting scammed but having spent the last half an hour failing to find the tanneries, we didn’t have much of a choice. Little did we know quite how much this escapade would end up costing us!
“Helpful local #2” gave us the directions, but didn’t come with us, which we thought was strange. At the next junction “helpful local #3” picked us out of the crowd and asked if we were looking for the tanneries, also giving us “free” directions. On we went, still no guide tagging along – this wasn’t part of the rules we’d read up on! We had one more turning and guess what? “Helpful local #4” pointed us in the direction of the tannery entrance (which just happened to be through a shop), where surprise surprise, the original “helpful local #2” was talking to the shop owner. How does that all work! (Yes, we know, a simple invention called the mobile phone and the ability to describe two lost tourists!).
Finally we were shown around the tanneries by an unofficial guide and did actually learn a lot. And all that was, ahem, “free”. But of course to exit we had to go back through the shop, where the mint tea and tray of biscuits were waiting. As was the shop owner with a plethora of carpets, rugs, and other fabrics to sell us. And this is where the scam really kicks in. Thankfully we were really switched on and walked out….with only one rug that a cost us over £100! At least “helpful local #2” took us back to the main street. But did he have to look quite so smug having just earned quite a large commission?
Top tip: if you’re ever offered mint tea in a shop, know that by accepting hospitality you are also agreeing to make a purchase.
3. Dirham for a Euro?
We’ve only experienced this one from children. They’ll approach you and ask you for 10 dirhams for the one euro coin they have ‘found’. They can’t use it so thoughtfully considered the tourist who might have a need for one. Be warned. It’s a fake coin, and by the time you realise, the little darlin’ has given it legs and is scampering off into the crowd with your 10 dirhams.
4. Marrakech Restaurant Scams
We’ve never experienced this (perhaps because we tend to eat at the best restaurants in Marrakech), but know people who have. There are two scams here:
Menu Swapping. The first is the old “menu switch-a-roo” trick. Menu 1, the cheaper of the two, is used to entice you in and order from. When the bill comes you have a nasty shock when it’s far more than expected. You complain and…BAM…out comes menu 2 – the considerably more expensive version!
Free Bread and Oils. The second Marrakech restaurant scam involves the “free bread and oils”. Be aware that only the first round is free. They will get replenished during the meal but the top-ups will be appearing in your bill. Even though they won’t bother to mention this fact to you.
How to avoid the Marrakech restaurant scams:
- Do your research. Ask your riad hosts, look at guidebooks and also our post on the best restaurants in Marrakech to help you decide where to eat.
- Photograph the menu. If you get the vibe that something isn’t quite right, you can always take a photograph of the menu you order from, just to be on the safe side.
- Pay what you think is reasonable. If you fall foul of this scam you can always just pay what you think is fair, based on the original prices you saw. It can be quite an intense situation to deal with, and the establishment may threaten to call the police, but this is unlikely – this Marrakech scam is well known to the police.
READ MORE: Best Restaurants in Marrakech
5. Free Moroccan Pastries
This is another Marrakech scam we fell for in our early days of visiting Morocco. Whilst walking around the Koutoubia Mosque gardens we were approached by a street vendor with a tray full of freshly baked pastries. They smelt delicious. “You want to try a free pastry?” he asked us. Who doesn’t right? So Her Ladyship took one. He then offered the rest of us the tray and asked “You want a pastry?” Notice the complete lack of the word “free”. We didn’t at the time…BAM…I’m suddenly thrown into haggling mode trying to talk the guy down from an extortionate price per pastry. They were tasty, but not worth £5 each!
6. The Road is Shut
It really isn’t, but that’s what “helpful local, erm, I’ve lost count, #5?” will tell you. This is one of the most common scams in Marrakech, and can happen anywhere.
We’ve experienced this in two different locations.
The first incident got quite confrontational. We were making our way back to our riad along a route we’d trodden many a time, when just 20 metres from our accommodation…BAM…a man approached from behind and challenged us, telling us that tourists weren’t allowed down the alley and it was shut. I politely explained to him that it wasn’t shut, and we were going down the alley. He got very heated and used some “choice language” (obviously a huge Samuel L Jackson fan). Thankfully I don’t get intimidated that easily and sent Her Ladyship to hammer on the riad door whilst I blocked the male from trying to stop her. It was clear that she was a bit shaken by the aggression, and understandably so. But as soon as the riad door was open and the staff heard the commotion they chased this chancer away, and within minutes had contacted all the surrounding riads to warn them and to try and identify the male. No one knew him. We suspect he wanted to take us on a very scenic detour to somewhere we didn’t want to go, all for free of course!
The second incident was after a lovely evening meal we’d had at Comptoir Darna outside the old medina. We were walking back, and knew it was quicker and easier to cut through a certain section of the souks. As we entered a small group of locals told us that it was “shut”. Not going to fall for that one! So, despite their repeated calls in various languages, we ignored them and determinedly made our way. We got pretty much all the way through the section, then, wait for it…BAM…closed and locked shutters across the entire walkway. They had been telling the truth. Trying to walk back nonchalantly past the chuckling group wasn’t easy!
Top tip: Very rarely is a road or alley shut. From our own experiences, most of the street can be dug up, but there will still be a narrow walkway corralling people, donkeys and scooters through. We’ve never found an area of the old medina “closed to tourists”. If there are people walking in the same direction, it’s open. But just be aware…certain areas of the souks do get shut up at night.
7. Those Pesky Henna Ladies
The Henna Ladies always try to scam Her Ladyship, something guaranteed to put her in a mood. There’s a lot of hustle and bustle in the main square, Djemaa el Fna, and lots to look at and to look out for. The Henna Ladies certainly fall into the latter category. They have quite an infamous reputation and can be quite confrontational despite appearing all docile and smiley.
Their main trick is to grab the hand of an unsuspecting passer-by and start drawing as quickly as they can. If you’re not “on your toes” and don’t stop them, they’ll be demanding money, even though you never asked for henna in the first place. The drawing itself can be quite poor quality and may only last a day. If they manage to get a design (or part of one) onto your hand they’ll then smear it if you refuse to pay up, leaving you stuck with the mess for at least a day or two.
The Henna Ladies also employ distraction techniques. They frequently approach Her Ladyship with compliments about her lovely eyes, whilst another Henna Lady tries to surreptitiously start inking her hand. Rather amusing considering she is always wearing her sunglasses. They really don’t always think these things through.
To not fall foul of these crafty and questionable “artists”, be wary around them and even consider keeping your hands in your pockets! If you do want them to henna your hand, then make sure you agree on the design and cost before they start, and be mindful that they’ll often create it much larger than you asked for, enabling them (in their eyes) to charge more.
Health Warning: Please be aware that some of the Henna Ladies may be using black henna, which contains a toxic chemical that could cause burns and allergic reactions. Whilst this can be used in permanent hair dyes (under strict regulation), it’s illegal in the European Union to use it on the skin when applied in the form of black henna. Real henna is orange in colour and has a red or brown tint to it. Be suspicious of anything darker. If you really want henna, we recommend going to an established henna café, or get your hosts to organise it with a reputable artist.
8. Street / Stall Traders
So this section is an overview of some tricks and scams that have either been tried on us, or we have heard of. Please, don’t assume that all street and stall holders are out to scam you, but at the end of the day they are out to make money. Just like you would be in their position.
Haggling in the Marrakech souks is expected and can be huge fun. It’s an art we think we’ve mastered quite well, and have written about it here. Yet it’s clear that some people don’t haggle and just pay the original asking price, which will be way above what the item is worth.
Keep an eye out for these common Marrakech souk tricks:
The sympathy plea. Don’t fall victim to this. Remember the trader simply won’t sell you the product if he’s not making a profit.
The return. Any price you manage to negotiate is only valid for that moment. If you go away to “think about it” and return in half an hour, don’t expect to pay the price you had earlier agreed. The fun starts again, but this time at a higher price because they know you want the item. If haggling really isn’t your thing, then there are “fixed price” shops scattered around, such as the Ensemble Artisanal.
Always confirm the currency. This may seem a simple thing, but don’t assume the price has been quoted in dirhams. You don’t want to agree on a price only to discover that the trader was quoting the price in dollars or euros. The cheap piece of holiday “tat” has just become an expensive piece of “tat”.
Watch out for the old switch-a-roo trick. This has never been tried on us, but we have heard of tourists agreeing to a price for good quality leather/fabric goods, only for the original item to be swapped for one of inferior quality behind the counter. The tourist doesn’t realise because the item is wrapped.
No change. You’ve haggled hard, you’re happy with the price, but the trader then laments that he has no change, in the hope that you’ll just waive it. But don’t give in. They can easily go to the stall next door and get some change, and if they don’t, check your own change, and perhaps offer them slightly less than the original agreed price. Then stand back and see how quickly they can suddenly come up with the necessary coins.
READ MORE: How to haggle in the Marrakech Souks
9. Taking Photographs
Pretty much anybody you take pictures of will want money, even shop/stall traders, unless you have just spent a fortune on their goods, then they’re are usually more obliging. Which is fair enough. We certainly wouldn’t like tourists coming to our home town and taking photos of us!
Be aware that the price of a photo will be far more extortionate in Djemaa el Fna (the main square), if you want to photograph any of the street performers, water sellers, traditional dentists, musicians or story-tellers. You should always ask permission before taking a photo of anyone, and always agree on a price before pressing the button.
The water sellers will walk up to you and start putting their hats on your head whilst encouraging someone in your group to take your picture. They’ve even been known to get confrontational if you refuse to take their picture! But of course, when their picture is taken, they want money. We didn’t fall victim to this scam, as we negotiated a price prior to taking a picture. Yet even though the water seller was elderly and there was a lot of background noise, there was nothing wrong with his hearing. He could hear the camera clicking away and started demanding more money than the agreed price, because according to him, it was per picture! If you find yourself in this situation, just walk away (having paid what you agreed). Yeah, they may follow you for a bit, may shout a bit, but whilst they’re doing that they aren’t earning money and will soon wander off.
Also be warned that when you’re taking an innocent photo of the square in general, if a street artist thinks he might be in the photo, he’ll come after you for payment. Her Ladyship was once chased right across the square by a snake charmer for this very reason. Never seen her run so fast.
Top Tip: Head up to one of the many cafe terraces overlooking the square. Order yourself a refreshing drink, sit back, relax, and get the zoom lens working. Up here you’re safe from hassle.
READ MORE: Best Affordable Luxury Riads in Marrakech
10. Abhorrent Animal Handlers
I detest these people. You walk through Djemaa el Fna minding your own business and they’ll just dump a monkey on your shoulder or try and wrap a snake round your neck without warning and without permission. They will then either try and take your camera to take a picture or encourage people in your group to take a picture. Of course, once done, they demand an extortionate amount of money and become loud and try to intimidate you if you don’t pay up what they want.
Be warned, even firm and repeated refusals do not dissuade them from trying to pull this Marrakech scam. It’s best to give them a wide berth and don’t make eye contact with them.
I can’t convey in words how strongly we oppose this “trade” and find it hard to believe that in the 21st Century ignorant tourists are still willing to pay to have their picture taken with one of these poor animals. Monkeys don’t belong on the end of a chain, having had their teeth pulled out, or in small cages when not needed to “perform”. Snakes don’t deserve to have their teeth or fangs removed and their mouths partially sewn up whilst being dragged around by their tails. Animal welfare in Morocco is poor, and isn’t going to improve any time soon if tourists encourage these people.
As I said at the beginning, we love Morocco and the vast majority of Moroccans we have met are warm, friendly and helpful people. Some of the best in the world in fact. You can go to any city in any country and there will be a myriad of scams in play. So please don’t be put off by what you have read here. Forewarned is forearmed which is why we have written this post. If you go being fully aware of the scams in Marrakech, we think you’ll enjoy your visit far more.
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