Fears tourists will stay away after hikers murdered in Morocco

Imlil (Morocco) (AFP) –


The murders of two young Scandinavian women trekking in the High Atlas mountains in Morocco have shaken the region and fuelled fears that tourists will stay away.

The bodies of the two tourists were discovered on Monday at a campsite above the tourist village of Imlil, a well-known departure point for mountain hikes, where they had pitched their tent for the night.

The women were found with their throats cut, Moroccan authorities said on Tuesday as they announced the arrest of a suspect in the nearby city of Marrakesh.

Aware the murders could threaten the country's vital tourism industry, Morocco has brought in the central bureau of judicial investigation to lead the probe, which is being carried out in cooperation with the royal gendarmerie and authorities from national security.

As the investigation gets underway, many residents of Imlil have declined to talk to the media with some saying they had been told by the authorities not to speak to journalists.

"Our region is safe, those who have done this are not from here," said Mohamed, owner of a family-run hotel in his sixties.

His guest house sits at the edge of the paved road which leads to Imlil, a village of 10,000, before the tracks begin towards the snow-capped peaks.

- 'Cheerful and energetic' -

The victims have been named as Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, a 24-year-old Danish student, and her Norwegian friend Maren Ueland, 28, who were on a month-long trip to Morocco.

They passed through Imlil before beginning their hike, a local restaurant owner said.

"They were cheerful and energetic. They told me that they intended to scale Toubkal," he said, referring to the highest peak in North Africa which stands at 4,167 metres (13,671 feet).

The restaurateur, who requested anonymity, said he had "suggested putting them in contact with a guide but they declined" the offer.

According to her Facebook page, Jespersen had studied in Norway to be a guide.

Her friend's mother, Irene Ueland, meanwhile told Norwegian broadcaster NRK that the pair were well prepared.

"Her priority was safety. The girls took every precaution before going on this trip," she said.

Another Imlil hotelier mentioned "three homeless people" from a poor area of Marrakesh whom, he said, had pitched their tent near the two women.

One of the victims was found "inside the tent, the other outside, decapitated", according to the hotelier who said he arrived at the crime scene before the gendarmerie.

Moroccan media has also referred to a decapitation, but this has not been confirmed by officials.

- 'We feel affected' -

Moroccan authorities have not said the crime is terrorism-related and such attacks are rare compared to other North African countries.

The most recent jihadist attack hit in 2011, when 17 people were killed in Marrakesh. An attack in the financial capital Casablanca left 33 dead in 2003.

Tourism is a cornerstone of Morocco's economy, accounting for 10 percent of national income, and authorities frequently highlight security and hospitality in their advertising campaigns.

Hikers from around the world visit Imlil, which sits 60 kilometres (40 miles) south of Marrakesh, and provide a vital income for residents.

"It's very bad for the region. There will undoubtedly be cancellations," local guide Hossein said.

The trails, which had been closed since the murders, reopened on Wednesday but trekkers already in Imlil had mixed feelings about going ahead with their plans.

Nicolas, a Swiss hiker, said he had decided to camp overnight and then go ahead.

But 27-year-old Morgan from New Zealand said he and his girlfriend might cancel their plan to climb Toubkal.

"We feel affected" by the murders, he said.