25 Feb 2018
Rabat, Morocco
Sustainable Tourism

Cities were historically built around waterways for good reason — they served as roads, trade routes, and a source of food and natural escape. Barqu’ade, a social enterprise based in Rabat, Morocco, is sharing that legacy with tourists and locals alike, with a foot firmly placed in the future.

Just as exploring a city on foot offers the chance to stop and browse, boats provide a leisurely way to drift and discover. That watery voyage is the method of choice for Barqu’ade, which organizes boat tours in English, French, and Arabic. The small wooden flouka (felucca) boats used by the company are as environmentally-friendly as they come, and are powered by oars, rather than a motor.

Each tour offers the chance to learn about the rich history and biodiversity of the Bouregreg River, the Bouregreg Valley, and the cities that line its shores, Rabat and Salé.

The origins of Barqu’ade:

For Barqu’ade’s co-founder, Oumel Ghit Guelzim, the Bouregreg River is more than just a place where her business is based — it is also home to a fond childhood memory. “My father used to take me on small boat rides in the Bouregreg Valley,” she recalls. “It is one of my few memories of him, and it was our special thing together. When we decided to work with the communities in the valley, I was one of the first who was excited for the idea.”

Speaking of the idea, it originated in 2014 when Guelzim was an engineering student at the National Institute of Posts and Telecommunications. While studying, she participated in an enactus program, and one of the projects involved creating an initiative that would lead to an active community.

Talking to the local boat helmsmen (drivers), Guelzim and her team discovered their economic activity had been reduced to river crossings from Rabat to Salé — a far cry from when boating was the most well-known activity in Rabat. “Nobody cared anymore about our activity, and we were about to stop it,” says Mohamed El Haimer, President of the Flaykias of the Bouregreg River Association in Rabat (which represents the local boat drivers).

Recalling calm mornings on the river with her father, Guelzim says she realized the history and beauty of the valley were worth sharing. Shortly after, she and her team launched Barqu’ade, with the mission to revive boat ride activities and turn the Bouregreg Valley into a tourist hub.

There are currently 72 boat drivers engaged in the company. When there are no customers, the drivers are free to work independently and continue their everyday crossings between Rabat and Salé.

“Thanks to the Barqu’ade team we have launched so many services, and have many tourists as customers,” adds El Haimer. “We believe that our life will change a lot thanks to Barqu’ade.”

A new concept for Morocco:

Despite boat rides being a common attraction in cities around the world, the activity remains relatively rare in Morocco and across the MENA region. “We think it is a good way to promote the heritage of Morocco while also creating job opportunities for boat captains,” says Guelzim.

Barqu’ade’s longest boat tour is the Bouregreg Story, where tourists learn about a century-worth of the valley’s history. During Ramadan, Barqu’ade also offers special iftar dinner rides where people can break fast after the sun has set over the river. Guelzim is far from out of ideas, and would like to launch romantic dinner rides, team-building activities, and kids activity rides, all while drifting down the river.

Four years in, demand is growing for boat rides. Barqu’ade has seen 500 annual customers in the past years, and for 2018, Ghit Guelzim says they are planning for 1,000 visitors.

Development in the Bouregreg Valley:

As it happens, Barqu’ade may be in the right place at the right time.

The Bouregreg Valley is a hotspot for economic expansion, and is the second most important urban area in the country. Later in 2018, implementation will begin on the Bouregreg Valley Development Project, an initiative supported by the Union for the Mediterranean and managed by a state-run body. That project will work to reclaim the banks of the Bouregreg River, create natural sites, and promote sustainable growth in both Rabat and Salé.

Sustainable development is one of the main goals for Barqu’ade, too — and not at the price of compromising nature. “We want to have a great touristic activity that can make the economy grow, but we don’t want to destroy the environment in doing it,” says Guelzim of her business. “In each part of our value chain, we make sure we are respecting nature.”

Boating with a side of environmental education:

This respect of nature is something Barqu’ade aims to emphasize to both their guests and drivers.

When food and drink are offered during tours, Barqu’ade ensures all packaging is recyclable and does not get tossed into the river. They also work to educate drivers on the importance of maintaining the natural environment of their workplace. According to Guelzim, this was not always so straightforward.

“In the first year, the boat drivers didn’t have this ecological mindset,” she explains. They would throw everything into the river. In working with them we make sure they respect our strategy, and we educate them weekly about the importance of respecting the environment and our values as a social enterprise.” In return, the drivers also get a say in the process of designing new boat rides and services for visitors.

Once Barqu’ade is more established in the Bouregreg Valley, Guelzim says she hopes the social business can expand to other parts of the country, adding that there are many cities on the water where tourists take extended visits, including the Atlantic port city of Essaouira.

Where there is a river or water, there is a way.


Find out more about Barqu’ade through their Facebook page or on Instagram.

Images: Courtesy of Barqu’ade.

Hilary is a journalist, photographer, and maker of things. She loves working with entrepreneurs to share their stories and has done so around the world.Hilary Duff
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Barqu’ade Sustainable Tourism