Twenty-four hours to get out - why is Morocco flattening its surfers' paradise?

The waves of Imsouane are a global draw, the resort a hippie haven - but then came the bulldozers

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“It looks like a bomb just exploded,” said Layla Izem, a long-time resident of the Moroccan surf town of Imsouane, whose home was crushed by bulldozers last month.

Ms Izem* was given only 24 hours' notice to leave, and then only verbally, despite her husband’s family having lived in the property for 40 years.

Hers was one of dozens that were flattened by authorities over several days beginning on January 19, leaving residents homeless and confused by the sudden and unexplained bulldozing of their properties.

According to reports, the properties are technically illegal as they are unlicensed, despite many of them having been there for decades.

Issa Ouchen, the owner of two businesses and a home in Imsouane, estimates that around 30 businesses and 80 houses were destroyed.

“We were all staring in disbelief,” said Mr Ouchen, describing the moment he watched everything he had built being razed.

His restaurant and small hostel had existed in Imsouane for seven years.

“The scene was chaos, people were frantically running everywhere moving stuff, trying to save their possessions, or as much as they could,” said Mr Ouchen, describing the lead-up to the mass demolition, in which the police, army and heavy machinery descended on the town after residents were given just one day's notice.

“A day is not long enough for much of a town to vacate,” he said.

The demolitions have left about 150 people displaced or without an income in what was a thriving tourist hot spot.

Surfers' paradise

Imsouane, an hour and a half north of Agadir, was originally a small community with a few fishermen's houses.

It was discovered by surfers in the 1980s and became legendary in the global surfing community in the decades that followed. Surfers raved about its freakishly long right-hand wave, which perfectly peels for almost a kilometre, and dubbed it “the Magic Bay”.

As it became one of Africa's most popular surf destinations, shops, cafes, accommodation and other businesses emerged over years.

The “characteristic charm” and hippie feel of the town brought in the international surfing community. The visitors brought their spending power, providing an income for many locals who rented outboards, cooked food and provided accommodation for surfers.

Imsouane's Tasblast or Cathedral area was built up with white and blue painted structures and cave houses resembling the iconic homes on the Greek island of Santorini.

All of them have now been destroyed.

“These buildings were like those in the Madinah of Marrakesh,” said Mr Ouchen.

No explanation

Youssef Mohamed* bought one of the oldest cave houses in the area in 2020. His property was built in the late 1960s, and he admits he knew it did not comply with public maritime domain laws. “Land 30 metres from the ocean is owned by the government,” he said.

Many buildings were not “viable”, claims Mr Mohamed, explaining that they didn’t follow “official plans” and some were “without proper sewage systems”.

He had made his house into an eco-property, with off-grid sewage and recycled water systems. Decades after its construction, he says he was making inroads with the authorities to make his home legal, but his efforts were in vain.

“The government did not take the time to see how it could regulate certain structures in the area, it just took out everything,” he said.

“The demolition was so fast. They didn't take the time to study each case separately,” he said.

He believes some of Imsouane’s culture and heritage has been eradicated with the destruction of its iconic blue-and-white buildings.

Mr Ouchen is now homeless, and he and six employees have also been left without an income.

“It felt like they didn’t care if we had bills to pay or if we had a family to support,” he said. “It has destroyed me.”

Imsouane residents are still searching for official answers as to why the demolition happened now, so quickly, and whether they will be offered housing or compensation.

“Residents haven’t been told why it happened. There’s speculation that authorities want to build a fancy hotel, but we have no idea,” said Mr Ouchen. “I paid my tax on time.”

'Keep our memory alive'

French photographer and surfer Nick Pescetto was travelling in Morocco at the time of the demolitions in Imsouane. Before the destruction “it was the perfect place for surfers”, he said.

“The waves are beginner and intermediate-friendly. The wave is a longboard wave, the vibe was pretty chill. It was a beautiful place to meet people from all over the world who were surfing, travelling and getting to know a different culture.”

He documented the scenes of destruction. “It was pretty intense,” he said.

Some travellers helped to hand out food and water in the days following the demolitions, and the surf community rallied together to find temporary housing for those displaced, but as time goes on, former residents need a more permanent solution.

They fear this is only the beginning, and that other coastal towns could be at risk.

“[Parts of] Imsouane are now empty, there are no more guests, no more tourists – just destruction,” says Mr Ouchen.

Watch: Orcas chase yacht for an hour off coast of Morocco

Watch: Orcas chase yacht for an hour off coast of Morocco

Locals are urging prospective tourists not to cancel their holidays to Imsouane, as other areas of the town still have guesthouses and coffee shops and the waves are still rolling. The local community still needs visitors.

Mr Mohamed wants authorities to do due diligence before repeating the methods used in Imsouane.

“In the name and benefit of our country’s long history and heritage, authorities should consider leaving certain constructions even if they are on the maritime domain,” he said.

“We should keep our memory alive, remembering our past and stepping confidently into the future.”

The National contacted Imsouane’s local authority, Agadir Commune, Insouame Commune, plus the Préfecture d'Agadir ida Outanane for comment on the demolition. It has not received any response.

* Names have been changed for legal reasons

Updated: February 10, 2024, 2:37 PM