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Marrakech Tannery Scam: Overview with Hides

The Marrakech Tannery Scam: Our Worst Experience in Morocco

Morocco Stories

Our visit to the Marrakech tanneries was, without a doubt, our worst travel experience in Morocco and the worst experience of our RTW trip so far. Frankly, I’m rather embarrassed to be sharing our time as victims of the Marrakech tannery scam–this is a great example of many travel mistakes on our part.

But, alas–a travel blog that only discusses the good things about travel is not much of a travel blog at all, and the unfortunate story of our visit to the Marrakech tanneries belongs here, even though we loved the city overall.

The tanneries (open-air factories where leather is processed and dyed by hand) are supposedly a popular tourist spot in Marrakech–there are signs for them throughout the souks, and you can’t walk 20 feet without a local jumping out and saying “Tanneries? Tanneries?” in the hopes of leading you there for a fee.

Marrakech Tannery Scam: Tanneries with Man

Our first mistake was not doing enough research: we had heard about the tanneries from both a friend and from every tourist map in Marrakech–but independent research would have prepared us much better for what was to come.

As we set off for the tanneries, the atmosphere shifted almost immediately from that in the souks: this was not a “good” area of town. The women and children in the streets started disappearing, and were replaced by increasingly aggressive men demanding to take us to the tanneries.

“No guide! No money!” they shouted at us.

“Wrong way! I take you!” they called every time we hesitated ever-so-slightly over a turn.

We started to feel lost: our phone (that we kept trying to avoid looking at) said we were headed the right way, but could this be it? It seemed right, but this was not a tourist area. There were no other obvious tourists in site.

As it turns out, we wouldn’t spot another tourist until well after our tannery visit was over.

Marrakech Tannery Scam: Blue Dye

Increasingly uneasy, we shook off four more “not-a-guides”, and unhappily tolerated one who insisted on walking beside us… until he wanted us to turn down a side street. “Wrong way!” he called as we continued on, (correctly) trusting Google. He persisted: “They’re closed! I take you!” before eventually melting away.

We were relieved to be free of him, but we were now unescorted marks: enter Orange-Hands-Guy from the left.

Orange-Hands-Guy was smoother than the others. He kept pace with us. He presented his orange palms as “proof” that he “worked” in the tanneries (possibly true). We didn’t like him, we wanted him gone–but he kept insisting that he was “taking” us to the tanneries.

“No guide! No money!”

So here’s our conundrum: everyone knows not to follow the “guides” in Morocco. But what happens when they follow you? Orange-Hands-Guy didn’t have us take any turns–he just pursued us down the path that we were already following.

If we stopped, he stopped. Repeated declines of assistance only resulted in further insistence of “No guide! No money!”

We should have turned back, frankly. Turned back and just considered the whole thing a loss.

Marrakech Tannery Scam: Overview with Hides

But, we didn’t. Instead, before we could even decide our next move, Orange-Hands-Guy handed us off to Specter-Guy: the rail-thin, very tall, very old man who shoved mint into our hands and introduced himself as the “manager” of the tanneries who would give us a “tour”.

He obviously wasn’t a manager, and here comes our next mistake: we did not discuss a price.

Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. We know this game. We know to always agree on a price first. Believe me, this was not the type of shop to have a sign with the cost of a tour.

Looking back, I can only justify this insanity by the fact that (1) we were so relieved to actually find the tanneries and not end up lost that we didn’t react fast enough and (2) these people are very smooth with their scheme.

Specter-Guy walked us through two tanneries: the Berber tannery and the Arabic tannery. They were interesting, and the smell was not as bad as people profess it to be (we gave up on the mint after a couple of minutes). The “tour” lasted maybe 15 minutes, followed by a visit to a shop selling leather goods.

We expected that play: we drank our mint tea, firmly refused to buy anything, and left with a slightly-soured Specter-Guy, who was trying unsuccessfully to maintain his “friendly” attitude in the wake of our refusal to buy goods.

Marrakech Tannery Scam: Treating Hides

And then the fun began.

Because, who was waiting for us on this narrow and deserted side street? The one and only Orange-Hands-Guy, of his “No guide! No money!” fame.

Uh-oh.

It’s not like we didn’t know that we were being scammed up until this point. But seeing him waiting there sent a chill up my spine: this was a very organized group. Orange-Hands-Guy on one side, Specter-Guy on the other.

Specter-Guy demanded his payment: 200 dirham ($20 USD). The going rate was unknown to us at that time (another mistake, but FYI it’s $2-3 USD per our riad), but we knew 200 dirham was a rip-off.

We offered 100 dirham.

“No, 200–these are poor people, help poor people.” Specter-Guy raised his voice, Orange-Hands-Guy got a little closer: the intimidation was well underway.

Fine… 200. We were irritated, but at that point, we just wanted out of there.

Now, I would like to draw a careful picture: we were extremely isolated on this small road. No other tourists were nearby. There was us, Orange-Hands Guy, Specter-Guy, and a few other tannery buddies milling around in the background. Orange-Hands-Guy gestured for us to follow him back to the “Big Square [Jemaa el-Fnaa]”.

Marrakech Tannery Scam: Choosing Hides

Our options were limited: we could follow him (on the correct path per Google maps). We could walk past Specter-Guy, past the tanneries and other tannery workers, and try to go back the way we came. Or, we could go down another side street that was even more isolated.

Yikes.

We walked in the correct direction, Orange-Hands-Guy shadowing us.

“That’s okay!”, we implored. “We have a map. We don’t need a guide! No, thank you. Non, merci. La, shokran.”

“No guide! No money!” he repeated.

Right.

So, off we went: us trying to shake him, him refusing to let us go. Our minds were racing to assess the situation: “Are we in danger? Should we make a scene? Should we go back?”

We held hands and hoped.

Marrakech Tannery Scam

Orange-Hands-Guy suddenly pointed through a gate: “Jardin Majorelle!”

Um, no.

We knew that wasn’t Jardin Majorelle, because it’s on the other side of town and we can read a map. But, we could see palm trees and manicured grass through the gate, and there are many gardens in Marrakech. Stopping here would give us an opportunity to ditch Orange-Hands-Guy much sooner than dealing with him being on our heels all the way until the “Big Square”, so we decided to go in and try to outwait him.

Bad idea. Bad, bad idea.

Why? Because as soon as we walked through the gate, it became clear: this was a “garden” of some kind, but no one else was there. We were completely alone.

“Now you pay me.” Orange-Hands-Guy declared, switching up his lines.

We refused. We didn’t need a guide, we said no, you said no money, go away.

“500 dirhams [$50 USD].”

“No.”

Marrakech, Morocco Door

… And then four of his friends showed up.

I don’t curse much in my writing, but here’s my and Jeremy’s perfectly-in-sync thoughts at that moment: FUCK.

We tried to walk away, they forcefully pursued–touching Jeremy’s shoulder, pushing up against us: “Pay the man! Poor people. Help poor people. He help you. Pay!”

At this point, I made a fight-or-flight decision that worked, but I’m still not sure was smart: I screamed.

“HEY! BACK. OFF.”

It worked… sort of. They stepped back, and we started power walking back the way we came.

“Why so angry?” they now demanded, “Why you scream?”

They were stunned, but they weren’t fully giving up: Orange-Hands-Guy was now insisting on 200 dirham.

Jeremy shoved 10 dirham ($1 USD) in his hand, and we fled to the sound of the men screaming insults: out of the “gardens”, around the corner, and luckily, quickly ended up back on the main road. We dove into the first taxi we found (and agreed on a price first) and hurried back to Jemaa el-Fnaa, back to the tourists, back to safety.

Our adrenaline was still high, but we were able to take a few deep breaths in the car: it was over.

Marrakech, Morocco: Jemma el-Fnaa

Falling victim to the Marrakech tannery scam is, without a doubt, one of the most unnerving things to happen in our travels–and objectively, it wasn’t even that unnerving! This was in the middle of the day, the monetary amount was small, and while intimidation was the name of the game, were we in any real physical danger? Were those men going to mug us?

Honestly, I’m still not sure, but I’m leaning toward no. I later looked up the Trip Advisor reviews for the tanneries, and while they tell our story 100 different ways, I didn’t see any accounts of actual violence.

I reflected seriously on these events after they happened, and can divide my reaction into three sections: growth, indignation, and empathy.

Our experience with the Marrakech tannery scam helped us grow a lot as travelers: we made many mistakes (not turning back when things started to get weird, having too much money visible in Jeremy’s wallet which limited our ability to haggle after the “tour”, not researching what to expect more thoroughly, being rushed into not agreeing to a price for the tour upfront), and I certainly hope that we will not make any of them again.

I must admit, I am still somewhat indignant: these men stole from us through intimidation. They intentionally made us feel unsafe and threatened to get our money, and it kind of worked. Frankly, I’m not sure if I’m more annoyed by the first or the second.

But, at the end of the day, I am trying to have empathy.

It stings to be swindled, regardless of the monetary amount. But their attempts to guilt us aside, these really are poor people. That $18 means very little to us, but it may impact the lives of their families. All I can do is hope that while these people were cruel to us, that they are decent people within their communities who used the money well.

Because of that, I have (mostly) let it go.

Marrakech Tannery Scam: Cat

Read Next: Welcome to Marrakech

If you want to avoid the Marrakech tannery scam, this is what we suggest.

Reconsider visiting the tanneries.

The tour was interesting enough, but it was not fascinating. Even without all of the madness surrounding getting in and out, the attraction itself was fairly mediocre. If you don’t have a huge interest in leather, you’re not missing much.

Go in a group.

I cannot begin to express how much safer I would have felt in a group of six or eight here–and definitely, definitely don’t go alone.

Put a few dirham in your front pocket, and leave your wallet secure.

This applies to a lot of situations, but I would definitely advocate for it here.

Go during the middle of the day.

This is definitely not a crack-of-dawn or evening activity.

Take a taxi if you can.

Taxis in Marrakech are pretty affordable: $2-4 anywhere in the medina, and well worth the price to avoid being hassled by the “guides”.

Get your own guide.

You can hire guides to take you through Marrakech for a half or full day, and your riad will likely be able to help you find someone “legit”. They will help you explore the city, and will keep you insulated from the “not-a-guides”, especially near the tannery area.

Take extra caution as a solo female traveler.

While I didn’t travel to Morocco alone, I know many women who have–and all of them struggled with harassment in Marrakech. Brush up on solo female safety tips for Marrakech before going, and definitely, don’t head to the tanneries alone!

Don’t visit Morocco without travel insurance! We use and recommend World Nomads for their affordability, ease of purchasing & the clarity of their contract!

Marrakech Tannery Scam

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17 Comments Write a comment

Kate has been traveling full-time with her husband Jeremy (the other half of Our Escape Clause) for more than 2 years. She tries to keep a balance between going on new adventures and exploring favorite destinations (like Italy!) in depth, and is always on the lookout for the next beautiful overlook and delicious meal.

17 Comments

  • Lexklein June 20, 2016

    Sent this to my son who heads to Marrakech with his girlfriend tomorrow – very timely! Thanks! Glad things ended well.

    • Kate Storm June 21, 2016

      Oh, I hope they have a wonderful time! I’m glad things ended well, too–relatively harmless overall, but it was definitely a very unsettling afternoon.

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  • Dave July 31, 2017

    Thank you for this, we are thinking of heading to Morocco in a couple of months after Malta. I have been wanting to see the tanneries for a long time, and was talking to Silvana about them just a few days ago. After reading this we will definitely be more careful. This was a great article, very well written and informative 🙂

    • Kate Storm July 31, 2017

      Happy to help, Dave! I little forewarning and some planning is really all that’s needed to have a better experience than we did. The tanneries definitely made for an unforgettable sight!

  • Kathy Jackson November 18, 2017

    Thanks for this. I’m heading to Marrakesh in April. I’d like to see the tanneries, so your information is really valuable.

    Take care,

    Kathy.

    • Kate Storm November 18, 2017

      Glad we could help, Kathy! Hope your trip is absolutely amazing!

  • Sarah s February 3, 2018

    This happened to me today. A 16 year old boy walked beside me and said he was interested in going to university overseas and wanted to talk about America. We had a nice conversation and then he said he would show me where the tanneries are because they are close. He lead me into a leather shop and shop keeper guy walked me to the roof. I took 1 picture then walked out. The young boy was waiting behind the exit and told me he will take me to the big square. He took me down a shortcut with no one there and when when we started going into the souq again he asked me fore money. I attempted to give him 20 dinars and he got nasty. ‘ no bitch dollars, US money!’ I was shocked and immediate walked away saying ‘ok, u get nothing!’
    Then he called me the most horrible names I’ve ever heard and I ran back into the square.
    Disgusting people! I don’t know why the police don’t stop them! I’m really tempted to go back in tomorrow and ruin their day in a bad way!

    • Kate Storm February 4, 2018

      Ugh, I’m so sorry that happened to you!! I know how frustrating it is to feel like they’re “getting away with” treating people poorly, even if you do feel for their circumstances overall–so difficult not to carry it with you for the rest of your trip. I hope the rest of your time in Morocco is much more peaceful–this was by far the worst that we experienced there, which in the long run, was bearable if unpleasant.

  • Pete Culver April 10, 2018

    Me and my wife travelled back from Marrakech yesterday. Our week long trip was spoilt by our trip to the tanneries on Sunday. We were shown the way by a very well dressed middle age man who was very friendly. We were met at the tannery by one of his accomplices and had a quick tour and a look around the leather shop. We were then asked for 200 dirhams at the gate to help the ‘poor people’. I begrudgingly paid for a quite uninteresting tour.
    The well dressed man then said he would show us back to the market. He led us through some little back alleys which were very quiet and stopped us next to a huge man who was obviously one of his henchmen. He then asked for another 200 dirhams which I refused and offered him 80. Then his friend stepped in and things turned very threatening. I looked around for other tourists or possibly a policeman but this area was obviously not used by either. Not being too sure how far these two thugs would go for money and thinking of my wife and wallet , I decided to cut my losses and pay up. These scumbags are organised gangs of criminals preying on tourists. This area should definitely be policed because this obviously is a very common occurrence. Feel totally robbed but could have been a lot worse!
    Always go with a group of people or with an official guide and always ask for prices in advance.

    • Kate Storm April 11, 2018

      Pete, I’m so sorry to hear that you guys had that experience! It does sound almost exactly like what happened to us two years ago–I’m sure they’ve been running this game for decades and will be running it decades more into the future. At least you guys stayed safe, as did we, which is of course the more important thing–but it still stings.

  • Carina April 15, 2018

    Heading here in 2 weeks! Thank you for this real article. I will definitely hire a guide as I am traveling alone and do want to see the tanneries!

    • Kate Storm April 19, 2018

      Good luck, Carina! Hope you have a wonderful time–a guide can do wonders in Marrakech, and the tanneries are definitely interesting to see. 🙂

  • Talha Rifaai May 4, 2018

    Great article Kate. I am a Moroccan living in Marrakesh and it’s such a disgrace to hear these things happen on a regular basis. Even though a great number of policemen patrol around the alleys and streets of the medina, we feel they’re not present and uncompromising enough towards these culprits. This situation led to organized gangs and networks making money out of tourist intimidation and threatening. Usually no physical violence is involved, and it often takes one to only be assertive and totally ignore them, but you can’t expect from a tourist who made the trip to your country hearing about how welcoming Moroccan culture is to act that way.
    I have also created a group on Facebook with 1000+ members to build a trustworthy community of locals and travelers that can share tips and advice, and came up with a FAQ section to raise awareness about similar aspects of the culture here. The group is called “Couchsurfing Marrakesh” in case you want to look it up.
    We’re also now developing ideas as to how to shame or publicly report these scammers.
    As a young Moroccan, I am an engineer so I am not related to tourism whatsoever, but I still also feel the duty to do something about this and prevent tourists from experiencing similar stories that end up spoiling their whole stay, and overlook the amazing and beautiful aspects of our culture.
    For those planning to visit the city, I wish you a great stay.
    Stay safe,

    • Kate Storm May 5, 2018

      Thanks, Talha! In spite of the rough experience, we do have very fond memories of Marrakech and Morocco in general. You have a beautiful country! 🙂

  • TR September 13, 2018

    Do you know if walking around is any better in Fez? We’re going for 2 weeks in December and I’m thinking it might be better to just get a glimpse of the medina where the tourists are and do day trips while in Marrakech and then actually buy stuff or explore the medinas more in Fes or Chefchouhan.

    • Kate Storm September 15, 2018

      Fes felt about the same as Marrakech, but Chefchaouen was much more relaxed.

      If you’d like to do the tanneries, I’d recommend Fes over Marrakech purely based on friend’s reports and photos I’ve seen–they look larger and more beautiful–but we haven’t been there ourselves.

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