Epic Profiles: Pierre-Yves Marais
Owner of multiple private desert camps across Morocco, Pierre-Yves Marais is a pioneer of responsible tourism in Morocco.
Epic have followed Pierre-Yves Marais around Morocco for a number of years, when we find someone who has a similar ethical ethos to our own and the same desire for travel adventure with a bit of understated luxury thrown in, we tend to keep them close. He is one of the pioneers of responsible and sustainable stays in Morocco, and more immersive experiences in the ‘real’ Morocco. We talked to him about his philosophy, hopes and concerns for sustainable travel and the projects he has worked on over the years.
A native Frenchman, Pierre-Yves first visited Morocco in 1998 he had a year in front of him without any constraints, just time in which he could spend immersing himself in the experience. Travelling across the Kik Plateau, into the countryside and the southern valleys and desert, he fell in step with a group who were filming the Gladiator movie in Ouarzazate, the experience expanded his ideas and inspired a love of luxury hospitality. For some, that is a private jet and a fancy hotel, for others, it is more of an ‘experience’ luxury that they want.
It was a different Morocco then, the main street, the ‘Mohammed V’ in Marrakech was populated by donkeys and carts, and the medina was much quieter. The town really finished at the edge of the walls of the old city, there were no large buildings as there are now in the ‘new town’ of Gueliz, just small, residential houses. Then after 2000 it boomed.
Pierre-Yves’ first foray into tourism in Morocco was to build the first desert camp in the dunes of Merzouga, he was a pioneer and it was a dream brought to life. But it has been his camp Terres des Etoiles in the Agafay desert which brought him into the spotlight in the last decade, as it has grown from a small camp into a sustainable business with outreach camps and pop-ups on local farms and in close by villages. The work of a man with an insatiable appetite for his projects and a love for the local environment and people.
Born from a fleeting dream he had during stops in the heart of the moonscape surroundings of Agafay just outside of Marrakech, he was driven by a passion for these wild spaces and a forward-looking vision of responsible tourism. Finding land in Agafay facing the Atlas Mountains, away from the tumult of the city – he threw himself headlong into the challenge– to build a camp bottom-up, from nothing. At the heart was an idea of tourism that respects the environment and is self-sufficient, providing a re-vegetation of the desert, and an on-site organic farm. He opted for visionary and sustainable management of energy, water and waste to create a space that is mindful of natural resources and the environment around. As a result, the project was awarded The Green Key Label, a program supported by Mohammed VI Foundation for the protection of the environment.
Pierre-Yves ventured further into the area by looking to supplement the incomes in local villages with pop-up lunch spots which can be serviced by the local people, but with the same understated luxury feeling of the original mother camp.
El Irch Farm is a farm belonging to the El Irch family in the Saharwi village, a traditional farmhouse on the families plot – where visitors can immerse themselves into the Agafay life.
Saharwi Village the idea was to create an eco-tourist village where the stay works in synergy with village life, a few tents and investment in local artisan crafts to create a sustainable growth model for the village that was not just dependent on tourism, to ensure a harmonious balance.
For an entrepreneur with a vision to create more sustainable experiences, one of the frustrations can be the willingness of the local market to support the right kind of tourism. At a time when travellers more than ever want to embrace nature and celebrate humanity, he still feels that natural and rural tourism isn’t taken seriously by the Moroccan authorities, a subject which he is trying to bring up the agenda and influence.
Terres des Etoiles became the regular meeting place of the Forum Fellah Spirit of the Earth where specialists and lovers of the land its riches and development could meet.
One frustration for any true pioneer is the inevitability of being ‘followed’, each project Pierre-Yves has set up has been copied. It looks likely that this will continue with Terres Des Etoiles, eventually eroding the novelty and also impacting the peace of the natural environment and sustainability of resources.
So where is Pierre-Yves going next? Well, with the wave of interest in more outdoors and out-of-the-city experiences following Covid-19, one area he is exploring is pop-up luxury camps for small and mindful groups out in nature, created in a way to minimise impact and also manage the logistics involved. He will also be working on a new project in the big dunes of Erg Chegaga.
His hope for the future is that Moroccans who are embracing tourism understand that people who visit don’t want a country that is the same as home, they want to understand the difference in others – and that means they want to consider the future to balance out serving tourism with other ways to live life and other economic routes to growth.
What can visitors do to help promote sustainable tourism?
‘Be careful of tourism, it can create a good or bad feeling – it needs to not distort normal life, you should demand tourism which adheres to good values and represents a real discovery, the choice of an operator with integrity as part of this is essential. Both service providers and traveller’s need to remember the tourist is not the king, he is the guest of the host country and should therefore make the visit the least disruptive and most beneficial he can for both parties’.
We have not doubt that Pierre-Yves will continue to wave the banner of low impact and responsible tourism in his upcoming projects, while managing his own affairs at the beautiful camp of Terres Des Etoiles with continued integrity. He is also happy to say no to commercial project opportunities which don’t fit with his philosophy.
- 1999 – Renovation of a riad to rent out as a Maison D’hôtes, which he also had as a home.
- 2000 – Renovation of an old Kasbah, Dar El Hiba in M’hamid Ghislaine, Zagora
- 2001 – Management of the desert camp of Kasbah Dar Kawa in Merzouga, managed for 4 years.
- 2005 – Creation of Camp de Chegaga in the big dunes of Erg Chegaga with Chez Naji.
- 2010 – Established the concept of Terres des Etoiles in Agafay beginning with the buying of the land and establishment of 10 initial tents.
- 2018 – Satellite projects around Terres des Etoiles which involved working with local people and renovating a small village
- Village renovation near Agafay village with pop-up dining area.