Merzouga, Morocco
September 2014

The Supratours bus arrives in Merzouga before the crack of dawn, and the hotel touts descend. Most of the people who get off the bus are backpacker types, the younger ones foolish enough not to have made reservations for a hotel or camel trek. “You have reservations?” the touts ask. “You have a piece of paper?”

Backpackers are at the mercy of the touts.For those who didn’t make arrangements, the hard sell begins. Even those who do have reservations aren’t necessarily free from the sales pitch. The bus arrived an hour early, and the hotels are scrambling to meet us.

Three girls from Poland are getting a particularly hard pitch. “How much are you paying this other place?” the tout asks them. “I will give you a price.” He is persistent, follows them closely when they try to walk away. Luckily, they are rescued by their ride.

I’m not so fortunate, nor is the young Japanese couple who are waiting for a friend. A tout approaches them first, then he approaches me, as a light rain begins to fall. Yes, rain, in the Sahara. “You have hotel?” the tout asks me. “Maybe they won’t come.” When he asks me where I’m staying, he immediately moves on. “That is a good place,” he says. “Very clean.”

I feel bad for the backpackers. They are at the mercy of the touts, and they’ll probably be sold a bad trip. I recall the American woman I met in Meknes. She said she and her sons just showed up in Merzouga, and they ended up in a bare-bones camp. That’s what is going to happen to those kids.

When it comes to the world’s most unique travel experiences — desert treks, safaris, mountain climbing, etc. — invest in a good one. Go to the best recommended places you can afford and always reserve in advance. Let them take care of you. Have a good time, not a bad memory.


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