Moroccans in earthquake-hit tourist area grieve losses, fret about future

Aftermath of a deadly earthquake, in Talat N'Yaaqoub

By Ahmed Eljechtimi

OUIRGANE VALLEY, Morocco (Reuters) - The Kasbah La Dame Bija guesthouse in Morocco's picturesque Ouirgane Valley escaped unscathed from an earthquake that devastated the area, but the owner's bookings collapsed and he worries about whether the region can revive its tourist appeal.

"The earthquake killed people and destroyed villages on which our tourism activity depends," said Abderrahim Bouchbouk, owner of the nine-room guesthouse that was once run by his grandfather.

Coping with the human tragedy of a Sept. 8 tremor that killed more than 2,900 people is everyone's immediate concern, but for a region that relied on tourists trekking along stunning valleys and mountain passes, buying local handicrafts or visiting now devastated sites, the economic future looks bleak.

"No tourists, no job, no income," said Mohamed Aznag, a waiter in a café in the shattered village of Tasa Ouirgane who lost his daughter in the earthquake and now fears for his livelihood that supported the rest of his family.

He spoke as he observed the ruins of Dar Izergane guesthouse, which collapsed in the quake, close to the damaged and now empty cafe where he works.

Whole villages, many dominated by homes and buildings made of mud brick, crumbled into mounds of dirt when the 6.8 magnitude quake struck, burying those inside and destroying businesses in a region that depended on the tourist trail.

Tourism offered vital extra earnings for many, with few other work opportunities outside tilling the land on smallholdings.

"That was a way for many local farmers to make additional revenue," said Bouchbouk, whose Kasbah La Dame guesthouse employs 14 people.

Ahmed Bassim, a tourist guide in the Ouirgane area who has been forced to live in a tent for shelter since the earthquake, said the region was in desperate need of reconstruction. "But I hope tourists would still visit in solidarity with us," he said.

The region, one of Morocco's poorest, lies close to Marrakech, a popular tourist destination with luxurious hotels, fancy shopping centres and a historic souk.

Many hope plans for a gathering of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, scheduled for Oct. 9-15 in Marrakech, will not be disrupted by the earthquake.

Lahcen Zelmat, head of the Morocco's tourism industry federation, said the long-planned event "would be a chance for Morocco to promote Marrakech destination again after the earthquake."

(Editing by Edmund Blair)