Millions of Moroccans living in Europe may soon start returning home for their summer holidays, something that has been difficult to do on Spain’s traditional ferry crossings in recent years due to a diplomatic spat and COVID restrictions.
“Finally,” said Reda, a 20-year-old Moroccan who arrived in the southern Spanish port of Algeciras on Wednesday, the first day of the Spanish operation “Crossing the Strait”, which marks the return of the Moroccan diaspora in summer.
Like him, millions of Moroccans in Europe waited three years to take the “road to the desert” and return to Morocco in the summer by car and ferry via Spain.
For that to happen, Rabat had to decide in mid-April to re-establish maritime links with Spain after the end of a serious diplomatic crisis that lasted almost a year between the two countries that border the Strait of Gibraltar.
“Last night I couldn’t sleep, I was very excited,” said Reda, who has driven nearly 4,500 km with his girlfriend from the Finnish capital Helsinki, where he studies. Your final destination is Agadir, in southwest Morocco.
With more than 3.3 million travelers and more than 760,000 vehicles in the summer of 2019, the “Crossing the Strait” or “Marhaba” operation is one of the largest flows of people in the world between continents in such a short period.
“These are the only two summers (2020 and 2021) of my life that I haven’t spent in Morocco,” Reda said, wearing flip-flops and a bobblehead. Going down by car, “is almost a tradition for us”.
In the large port complex of Algeciras, Reda is just 14 km from Tangier, on the Moroccan coast. On Wednesday, a few cars loaded with luggage and families looking for a shady spot to eat in front of towering red ferries began to be seen.
On the other side of the strait, the arrival is going well.
“The welcome was very good. We were checked, but I think it’s good for everyone’s safety. But I’m in a hurry to start my vacation,” said Omar, as he got off the ferry from Tarifa, another Spanish port.
The crossings are still not very crowded, with peak travel expected in late June and the first weekend of July.
Resumption of maritime connections between Spain and Morocco
Maritime connections between Spain and Morocco only resumed in mid-April, while Rabat reopened its ports to other European countries in the summer of 2021.
The border between the two countries had been closed in March 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, with the closure prolonged by the May 2021 diplomatic crisis over Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony of which Morocco controls about 80%, but which it is also claimed by the pro-Saharawi independence Polisario Front.
The crisis ended in March, when Madrid reversed its position and supported the Moroccan autonomy plan.
“It’s a shame (…) With these disputes between politicians, it’s the people who pay the bill,” said Abdel Ghani, 67, a retiree with dual Spanish and Moroccan nationality who came to buy a ticket.
“You can’t close the border when millions of people want to cross,” said Reda, who said her parents “went crazy” last summer after Spain was excluded from maritime links with Morocco.
Lost income from years without traveling
This summer, Spanish and Moroccan authorities expect even more travelers than in 2019, the last year before the pandemic.
Morocco started the “Marhaba” operation on 5 June with agents deployed in the Spanish ports of Motril, Almería and Algeciras, as well as in Sète and Marseille, in the south of France, and in Genoa, in Italy.
But “unfortunately, the money lost” during the more than two years of closure “will not be recovered”, laments Manuel Piedra, president of the Association of Services Companies of the Bay of Algeciras.
The association estimates that the direct and indirect losses for local companies near the Spanish port amounted to almost 500 million euros.
While waiting for the ferry, Reda forgets about politics, looks into space and travels back in time: “This reminds me of my childhood, I used to travel every summer by car”. “It’s just great!