Travel Scams (And How to Not Let Them Ruin Your Trip)

I recently read this article about the most common scams on travelers in Morocco and how to avoid them and it got me thinking about how much I hate, loathe, despise and abominate being at the receiving end of an attempted scam. There’s something uniquely sucky when someone tries to scam you when you’re in the open-hearted and vulnerable position of traveling. And it’s a sad reality that a scam has the ability to become a much stronger memory than all the positive things about the trip.

Adam and I travel a lot and so we’re exposed to a good number of attempted scams. There’s a scam in Paris where the scammer scatters a few gold rings in touristy spots, like outside of Notre Dame, and when someone reaches for it, the scammer appears as if he spotted the potentially valuable gold ring in the exact same millisecond. The scammer acts like he’s doing the finder a favor by letting him take the ring, but maybe the finder could give him $20 because that’s probably a real gold ring and the finder will get hundreds if not thousands of dollars for it. This scam is so specific and psychological I doubted it was real when a tour guide told me about it, but on our tour that day, we did indeed notice several gold rings.

Before our trip to Thailand, I had read about a scam involving people telling tourists that a major tourist site is closed and offering to take them to other sites instead. Sure enough, in Bangkok, Adam and I went to a temple, and guy informed Adam it was closed and Adam was like “Em, it’s closed today, bummer,” I said “Oh no, I read about this. It’s a scam!” The guy looked horrified but kept telling us the temple was closed. When we finally found the entrance, it was open, just like it is every day.  Scam averted!

In Morocco there are travel scams around photos (if you take a photo of a snake charmer doing his thing, expect to pay way more than you think it’s worth) fossils (so many fossils, mostly fake) carpets (paying too much for what you’re told is a very old and rare rug) leather goods (paying too much) and more. The scam I’ve come across the most in Morocco – always in Marrakech — is the “let me show you to your destination” a.k.a. the “follow me” scam. This happens when a young guy says he can lead you to your hard-to-find hotel and then he wants an insane amount of money for leading you a few blocks. This just happened last week when my parents were visiting us here in Morocco, and I hate to say it, but it’s one of the memories that has stuck with me the most from their visit. Ugh, see how scammers can steal part of the joy from your trip?

But first, a little interjection: My feelings on Marrakech after three visits are that it’s a bustling, hectic, loud, trafficky, iconic, soulful, colorful place that you should see if you enjoy frenetic cities, but skip if you do not. If you just want to stroll and shop in a place that feels very Moroccan, I’d recommend subbing in Fez, which gives you the ancient medina/shopping vibe just fine, but without the threat of getting pounded by a scooter (mom has a gnarly bruise and popped blood vessel on her hand from where she got hit by a scooter in Marrakech).

I didn’t think my parents would like Marrakech and I said as much, aloud, last time I was walking around there, being hassled by a henna lady, avoiding eye contact with a snake charmer, stepping over donkey turds, and sucking in a life’s supply of car exhaust. “Let’s not bring my parents here,” I said. But once they were here in Morocco, I started to think maybe they’d feel like they were missing out if we skipped it. Many people think of Marrakech as the quintessential Moroccan city. My parents decided they would like to see it after all, so we drove the three-and-a-half hours from Rabat. I wanted to find parking outside of the ancient old city walls because I didn’t want a repeat of, oh my gosh, so many times that Adam or I have gotten ourselves in comically tight driving situations. Also, did I mention I’m not the most comfortable driver? But all of a sudden our old dinged-up sedan was in the walled city on a street originally intended for vehicles powered by horses, not horsepowered engines.

Luckily I found a sizable parking lot and I agreed to the $5 the parking people wanted to park overnight (this is a lot for Morocco but I was completely willing to pay it). I also agreed to a $3 car wash another guy offered, and I have to say he did a swell job. The guy who seemed to be running the parking lot offered to show us to our hotel and even though I know this scam, we’d already talked a little and he seemed nice and it would save me from staring at Google Maps while pulling luggage and leading my parents. But then, a minute into our walk another guy appears and starts spouting random and obvious facts like “This is old city of Marrakech” and “Main square that way.”

I told him “We’re not following you. We’re with that guy.”

“He’s my brother” new guy says. But I know better because everyone is not everyone’s brother. (Or are they?)

When we reached our riad, literally three minutes later, I tried to give the first guy 30 dirham, or about $3, which is a lot for a wee little walk. But he sort of turned away, making me think that this was the younger guy’s domaine. So I gave the younger guy the money and before it even caressed his hand, his face twisted into a grimace and he began to shout that I was insulting his very being by giving him such a low amount. He thrust the bill and coin back in my hand. My dad misread the situation and thought this young guy was being a gentleman and saying he couldn’t possibly take any money from us and it had been his pleasure to show us the way.  I told the guy what I was paying him was more than fair – a dollar a minute is good anywhere – and he continued to yell until I told him it was 30 dirham or nada and I pushed my parents and myself through the doorway to our riad, which was lovely. But damn, NOT how you want to arrive to a place. I fumed for at least five minutes until I calmed myself and realized I was probably setting a bad tone for the rest of the trip, and for my parents’ perceptions of Marrakech.

This same thing happened to Adam on his first time in Marrakech when a kid tried to shake him down by holding up the money Adam had given him and saying “This is nothing to you,” which is a mostly true and pointed thing to hear, especially coming from a poor child.

The rest of my parents’ and mine 24 hours in Marrakech was a mix of navigating slightly stressful situations, like bargaining with salesmen over their hilariously high first offers and accidentally driving through tiny medieval streets on the way out, and lovely things like a touristy but fun dinner at Dar es Salaam (ornate restaurant where part of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day was filmed) visiting El Badii Palace, the Secret Garden, the Majorelle Garden, and expanding my Tamegroute pottery collection.

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Through my door in the chic Mon Riad.
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Dar Essalam Restaurant (there’s a show with dinner!)
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Badii Palace (with storks!)
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Badii Palace
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A serene looking entryway amid all the bustle of Marrakech
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Motorbikes everywhere.
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The beautiful wares at Tamegroute Potter in Marrakech.
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Mom and Dad in the Secret Garden, a recently rehabbed serene space in the midst of the medina.
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The iconic Majorelle blue color in the Majorelle Gardens.

Tamegroute pottery is this gorgeous, rustic pottery in varying shades of intense green. It’s made in Tamegroute, a southern Moroccan village located just before the wide expanse of the Sahara. I’m friendly with Aziz of Tamegroute Potter in Marrakech (Moissine 192, Marrakech Medina) and I’ve gone to see him and buy a few pieces of pottery each time I’ve been there. On this last visit there was another guy in the shop, Abdulkarim, and I asked him where Aziz was. Abdulkarim said, “Aziz? He’s my brother!” I was like yeah, everyone is everyone’s brother, I’m not buying it! To which he pulled out his phone and scrolled through many of family photo with Aziz, who I then realized is pretty much his spitting image. Anyways, very nice and super impressive guys, both of them and I highly recommend a visit. Not only do both brothers speak a trillion languages, but they keep their village’s age-old pottery tradition alive (and hopefully thriving). When my parents told Abdulkarim they found Marrakech too hectic, he said “Marrakech is crazy! I’m from the desert, so it’s especially crazy for me.” They were pleased someone agreed And I bought some real cute ceramic cacti to add to my collection.

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Anyways, scams will always happen. There will always be people who see tourists as easy cash-laden targets to be taken advantage of. But learning about what the scams are can help to avoid them. And trying not to let being duped ruin a trip can also go a long way.

Perhaps there’s a future blog on haggling to get the best price, but for now I’ll say that I don’t consider a shopkeeper asking a high price for something a “scam.” As Moroccan shopkeepers like to tell me “A good price is one that both the customer and the salesman feel good about” and I tend to agree. That price is different for each person and you reach what you think is a fair price with a little friendly haggling. I actually enjoy it!

But scammers, boo.

Emily

3 Comments

  1. Oh my! I completely echo your sentiments, especially about Marrakesh. I feel like I have to constantly be on guard there. I prefer Fez so much more. Can’t wait to go over all of our good/bad observations soon…and hopefully not get ripped off!

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