A Powerful Lure: Owning a Guesthouse in Morocco

ESSAOUIRA, Morocco — This Moroccan town offers a tempting formula to visitors: Buy a low-priced guesthouse in the old quarter, settle into an exotic paradise of souks and spice markets and then watch the tourists and money roll in like the hazy waves of the nearby Atlantic.

The real estate offices in Essaouira’s walled old quarter are filled with photographs and upbeat descriptions that tempt expatriates to invest in 18th-century riads, traditional Moroccan townhouses with floors of rooms facing an interior garden or courtyard. “Pleasant riad decorated by an artist. Seven spacious bedrooms and seven bathrooms. Panoramic views from a rooftop terrace. 330,000 euros,” or about $365,000.

“The dream is exactly the same as falling in love with a person,” said Jean-Gabriel Nucci, 63, the French co-owner of Riad Watier, a century-old primary-school-turned guesthouse in Essaouira’s old quarter. “But when you fall in love, you are blind to the risks. This city is easy to love. It’s very photogenic, but people don’t think about what it will be like to live on a daily basis in this city. It’s not just a postcard.”

Since the 1990s, the seaport town — with its bustling fish market, blue wooden boats and honey-colored ramparts — has become a Mecca of sorts for expatriates from Europe. Essaouira, listed on Unesco’s World Heritage List for its 18th-century architecture, is less hurried than Marrakesh or Fez and has long attracted surfers for its annual kite-surfing contest and musicians for its festival of Gnaoua music, a throbbing blend of Berber, African and Arabic religious songs and rhythms.

The city’s exotic charm has also drawn moviemakers, with the filming last year of “John Wick 3” from the city’s fortress and the windswept moment when Queen Daenerys in “Game of Thrones” meets her loyal army of the Unsullied.

The expatriates come for more prosaic reasons. They have traded jobs and homes to settle by the sea with year-round balmy temperatures and a lower cost of living to stretch their pensions with investments in traditional guesthouses.

The majority of these riads are operated by French owners, attracted by a French-speaking culture and low-cost, three-and-a-half-hour flights from Paris. But there are also owners from England and Germany and smaller numbers from Italy and Switzerland, according to research by Anne-Claire Kurzac-Souali, who has studied this global form of gentrification in major Moroccan cities and who estimates that almost 400 properties are owned by foreigners in the old quarter.

Local real estate agents say there is a constant churn in sales of the riads, as owners experiment with the lifestyle and then decide to buy properties outside the fortress city or to return to their first homes in other countries.

“Being on holiday somewhere is not the same as living there,” said Lynn Houmdi, a Scottish expatriate who took a buyout from a government job and moved in 2012 to Essaouira with the initial goal of buying a riad. “I found I couldn’t live like a tourist. I couldn’t afford to eat out all the time, to buy all the same things in the supermarket. I didn’t go out an awful lot.”

Ultimately, she decided against buying a riad because, she said, she realized that she didn’t have enough money to invest in improvements and restoration while waiting to break even. Instead, she started working for nonprofit institutions and became a marketing consultant and freelance writer, creating a guide to living in Essaouira and a blog and Facebook group devoted to Essaouira’s expatriates. Her advice for newcomers is to rent before buying and immerse themselves in their chosen town to test a new lifestyle.

“For me it wasn’t viable to buy a riad,” she said. “I wasn’t in a position to run that big of a business. Also, I found that there are a lot of expats that live in a bubble. They run their little business and keep to themselves.”

Mr. Nucci’s riad faces a small fountain and a cluttered workshop where a Moroccan man repairs tin teapots. His guesthouse is discreetly marked and easy to overlook among more prominent signs for his neighbors, a French couple who opened their own riad three years ago to cater to French tourists.

There is no competition. Mr. Nucci is concentrating on English-speaking tourists from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, England and Canada through referrals from foreign tourist agencies and repeat bookings.

It’s been a long journey for Mr. Nucci, a sailing aficionado, who visited Essaouira in 1998 and returned permanently in 2003.

He said he had been influenced by French television shows extolling the seaport paradise, which inspired a wave of French immigration to Essaouira.

“They just left everything behind and invested, and I did a bit of the same, but not in a crazy way,” Mr. Nucci said. He and his brother, an architect in Grenoble, France, purchased the shell of a school that had been abandoned for years in the old quarter. The interior was crumbling, and its ancient wood door had been bricked up to discourage squatters.

He supervised a crew that renovated the building, and his brother devised the architectural plans for the 11-bedroom guesthouse, which has a rooftop terrace with a view of the sea.

Many novice owners realize over time that it’s difficult to maintain private lives while running a guesthouse, he said.

“They usually live in a suite in their guesthouse,’’ he added, “but when you are 40 or 60 years old, it’s too claustrophobic. So what do they do? They find something in the countryside and then rent the space they had in the building and make even more money. So it works. But don’t call your little place a guesthouse anymore; a guesthouse is normally where the owner lives.”

He lives upstairs in a two-bedroom flat but spends most of his time on the three common levels where the guests circulate in the lounge, library and interior garden with Mr. Nucci’s pet birds.

After all these years, he has watched riad owners come and go. Now, he said, his business is profitable enough to carve out a form of retirement with the aid of a Moroccan staff. His strategy is to spend six months at the riad and the rest of the year on a 12-meter steel boat docked in Cape Verde.

“When you are in the guesthouse you are not in Morocco; you are in a bubble, because you have the world coming to see you,” he said. “Here we can have 12 or 14 different nationalities. Then you go out for tea and come back to the bubble. So it’s very strange. But I am used to it on boats. I like living in a bubble.”

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