Tangier: Morocco’s International City

Besides the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, Tangier is the first stop for passengers ferrying from Spain and Southern France. Its close proximity to Europe, on the top edge of North West Morocco and its long, historic contact with Europe through the ages makes it a the ultimate meeting point between Africa and Europe. Yet, Tangier is probably the least Moroccan of any other city: the seedy European imprint is only too apparent in the older bars and hotels, and then there is the setting and skyline which reminds you of major Mediterranean resorts. Only the flurry of recent developments reminds you that you’re in an unfamiliar town.

History of Tangier: An International City

At the end of the nineteenth century, Morocco was effectively carved out by two colonial powers: Spain and France. The Spanish protectorate encompassed much of the Rif Mountains (northern Morocco) and had its capital at Tetouan. The French protectorate started at the rich agricultural plains south of the Rif and extended south towards its administrative capital, Rabat.

Given its strategic position as the meeting point between Europe and Africa, Tangier drew attention from other colonial powers besides the French and the Spanish. To keep the peace between these different interests, a compromise was reached: make Tangier an International city with all the major colonial powers having equal control. The treaty was formally finalised in 1923 and stated that the Sultan (Morocco’s King) have a representative to be assisted by other representatives from Western communities (Spanish, Dutch, French, Italian, British, Belgian, Swedish and later Americans after World War II).

The special status given to Tangier as an International Zone made it one of the most stylish and special resorts in the Mediterranean. The city had its own laws, administration and a booming economy with over 600 companies and 40 International banks. Its population reached close to 60 000 in the early 1950’s, with over half the population foreign exiles and expatriates. Many famous people were attracted to Tangier and called it home. Paul Bowles, the American novelist, and his wife Jane settled permanently here in 1947 and continued to live in his modest apartment in the city until his death in 1999. William Burroughs is another American novelist who lived in the International Zone in the 1950’s. The Beats – Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Brian Gysin – and the Rolling Stones also passed through Tangier.

When the drive for Moroccan independence started, Tangier saw active pro-independence rallies in the early 1950’s. Upon independence, the city was reunited with the rest of Morocco and lost its special status as an International Zone. The economy quickly dwindled as most of the companies and banks shifted their operations to mainland Europe. Its large, eclectic mix of foreign communities dwindled too, to a mere 2000 in a population of over 600 000 today.

Tangier Today: More popular with holidaying Moroccans

Tangier today is not the mainstream tourist destination Marrakech or Agadir is. It is more of a destination for holiday-making Moroccans than your seasoned tourist.

However, Northern Morocco is being actively promoted as a tourist destination. Tangier is spread heading the tourism drive in the North with a flurry of restoration and developments. With its rich history, individuality and mix of West meets East, Tangier can be a serious competitor to Marrakech as a leading tourist destination in Morocco.