Spring has sprung in Morocco as the town of El Kelaat M’Gouna prepares for the Festival of Roses after a two-year hiatus. A five-hour drive from Marrakech through the High Atlas Mountains, visitors alight engulfed in the deep aroma of the Centifolia or Damascene rose.
Legend has it that Amazigh pilgrims brought the rose to El Kelaat M’Gouna in the 10th century upon returning from their haj in Mecca. Others have it that the French imported the rose in the 1930s during the French protectorate. Regardless of how the world’s most popular, fragrant flower arrived in Morocco, celebrating the rose has become an annual tradition and trademark of this small town located at 4,070 meters, right at the foot of the Atlas Mountains.
Celebrating the rose has become an annual tradition and trademark of El Kelaat M’Gouna.
El Kelaat M’Gouna takes its name from the Arabic term el qal’a which means “fortress” or “citadel,” and M’Gouna, from M’Goun, the tributary of the Dades river where the town is situated in the Valley of Roses in Tinghir Province, about 50 miles northeast of Ouarzazate. Stretching for about 30 km, the aptly named Valley of Roses is one of the longest valleys in Morocco.
The annual Festival of Roses is Morocco’s most colorful and fragrant festival. In the past, it has attracted some 300,000 people. Although it has not been held for the past two years during the pandemic, this year the festival is happening once again, scheduled for the second week of May.
According to Ali Ouarmassi, a chemist and entrepreneur in the manufacture of natural cosmetics who is also a native of the Valley of Roses but based in France, the festival is “the annual occasion where families from the surrounding villages (some 30 to 40 kms) converge at Kelaat M’gouna to party and enjoy the local folk groups, those from the neighboring regions, and to dance and have fun.”
During the three-day festival, dance troupes and musicians perform traditional rhythms throughout the festival such as Ahidous, the dance of the bee. A petal-strewn parade of flower-decorated floats passes by, and street vendors offer various crafts, soaps, perfumes, lotions, oils, and dried roses.
With the streets of Kelaat M’Gouna lined with bright pink, flowering hedgerows, the local Amazigh women dress in traditional costume and bright head scarves decorated with vividly hued roses, and local children sport rose garlands.
Every year, a Rose Queen is selected to reign over the year’s aromatic crop.
The highlight of the festival, however, is the beauty pageant. Every year, a Rose Queen is selected to reign over the year’s aromatic crop.
What’s more, this event is also a business opportunity. Roses are used in cuisine, perfumes, soap, creams, lotions, and essential oils. It takes about 3,000 rose petals to make just one liter of rosewater in a distillation process, and the harvest typically yields around 14,000 liters.
“Until not long ago the villagers did not know the real meaning of the Rosa damascena,” Ourmassi told Inside Arabia. “All they understood was that it brought them some fairly substantial income which improves their living conditions. Indeed, shopkeepers gladly would give credit to the villagers because they were sure to be paid during the rose season. But nowadays, the craze for the rose has led to the marketing of ‘rose’ products with high concentration of rose fuchsia dye.”
Ourmassi suggested that because the festival attracts so many tourists not only from other regions of Morocco, but from abroad, it “boosts the local economy, especially after the difficult period of COVID-19.” He said that several agricultural cooperatives have become more interested in “organizing and promoting the rose sector by establishing labels to raise the quality of production and marketing of this rare and precious product.”
“Small distillation units and cooperatives are emerging in addition to the two local industrial factories, to produce rose water and even rose essential oil at a very high price,” he added.
Highlighting the growing international business potential, he said “the products are generally exported when their quality is high, and that may be of interest to various countries, especially the United States. For the major perfume-producing groups, the rose in the form of essential or concentrated oil is a major constituent in the development of high-end perfumes. And including a natural product in your formula is a significant branding advantage,” he said.
Omar Zanifi, an entrepreneur in tourism and cosmetic products, is also originally from the Valley of Roses, specifically Boumalne Dades. Now based in Paris, he told Inside Arabia that his cosmetics brand, Zanifi Meteorites, sources supplies of rose, argan, and prickly pear oil from the valley.
“The Festival of Roses is considered to be one of the oldest festivals in Morocco.”
“The Festival of Roses is considered to be one of the oldest festivals in Morocco,” he said. “Yet, despite its longevity, it has not yet reached the economic and social expectations of the local farmers, due to mismanagement by the local authorities.”
“As an eco-organic, spiritual, and cultural tourism operator, I think the festival represents a number of lost opportunities. First, is the opportunity to promote tours and workshops in the region to highlight our beautiful culture and rich heritage. Second, as a businessman and entrepreneur producing cosmetics and other rose products for the international market, I see the festival as an opportunity to review and assess the annual harvest, production methods, and distillation practices to better satisfy the needs of our customers around the world.”
Zanifi issued a call to the festival authorities and organizers to “engage in a consultative approach with professionals in tourism and cosmetics who are from the valley.” He said that “together we can develop a festival that can significantly boost the economy of the region to meet the needs and expectations of local farmers in a very real way.”
Inside Arabia reached out to one of the festival organizers for comment, but had not received a response as of press time.
The festival typically ends with a gigantic fair where producers from across the region converge to sell their products at competitive, customer-friendly prices, and people can buy household goods, clothing, and agricultural supplies.
As the convergence of flora, art, music, and commerce, the Festival of Roses is a sensory feast for the eyes, ears, and nose, and not to be missed.