How COVID-19 Put The Brakes On Moroccan Smuggling Trade

The pandemic and subsequent closing of the border with Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in Morocco, put an end to the 'atypical trade' that sustained the Fnideq region.

In the Spanish enclave of Ceuta
In the Spanish enclave of Ceuta
Ghalia Kadiri

FNIDEQ — In the middle of the dense crowd gathered in front of the great mosque of Fnideq, a small trading town in northern Morocco, Amina stands silent, as if paralyzed. Dressed in a white djellaba and scarf, she holds a picture of her neighbor in her hands. The man, in his 40s, poses with his four children in front of the sea. His name was Ahmed Bouhbou.

A few weeks ago, the Spanish coast guard fished his body out of the sea. He had tried to swim to Ceuta with two young people from his neighborhood, dragging a handmade buoy held by a fishing net.

"Ahmed just wanted to find work there to feed his children," Amina says. "There is no hope here."

The March 2020 closure of the borders with the nearby Spanish enclaves due to COVID-19 dealt a severe blow to the economy of Fnideq and the surrounding area. The entire region depends on trade with Ceuta and Melilla (located further east), especially smuggling.

This "atypical trade" had been depriving the kingdom of 4-5 billion dirhams (between 370 million and 460 million euros) in tax revenues every year. The government had tried to minimize the loss by closing the border post of Tarajal — which was used by tax-free carriers of goods — at the end of 2019.

"It's been almost a year since we had any income," says Halima, 39, who also came to demonstrate in front of the mosque on Feb. 12. Like all the inhabitants of this border area, this single mother of three children had a resident card allowing her to enter Ceuta without a visa.

"I was a cleaning lady there, with a contract and health insurance. I lost everything overnight," she says.

"We are hungry," adds Bouchra, a 27-year-old seamstress who lost her clients because of the drop in purchasing power. "But no one listens to us, not even in Parliament. The street was our last resort."

It's a whole ecosystem that's collapsed.

Over the past few days, food baskets have been distributed to the families most affected by the crisis.

"We are not begging for money! We are asking for real actions to create jobs," says Chaimae Amaachou, a young activist with a law degree who is unemployed. "An entire ecosystem has collapsed. People found themselves without water, without electricity and without enough money to pay their rent."

Some have sold their refrigerators, mattresses or clothes so they can feed their families.

In the typically bustling Massira Khadra souk, 40% of the shops have been shuttered, according to the market traders' association. Before the closure of the Tarajal crossing point, foreign merchandise was available here at discounted prices.The vendors are trying to sell the last remaining imported items.

The perimeter fence that separates Spain from Morocco in Ceuta — Photo: Antonio Sempere/Contacto/ZUMA

"Our model was based on the absence of customs. Customers came from all over the country to buy foreign-branded products at reduced rates," says Larbi, a 58-year-old pajama salesman. "Here, we only receive local goods, which we sell for more than in Casablanca."

After a first demonstration on Feb. 5, four young men between the ages of 18 and 25 were arrested and subsequently sentenced to six months in prison with suspended sentences for "violating the state of health emergency," "unauthorized assembly" and "violence against law enforcement officials."

An activist from the Moroccan Association of Human Rights who wishes to remain anonymous explains: "The authorities were particularly aggressive. These young people did nothing wrong. They were used as an example to calm people down."

To calm the protest, authorities announced on Feb. 9 that 400 million dirhams (37 million euros) had been released in 2020 to allow the development of free zones in Tetouan and Fnideq. "The construction of these industrial zones began eight months ago, but it is a rugged terrain and COVID-19 has slowed down the work," says Mounir Bouyousfi, director general of the Agency for the Promotion and Development of the North. "You don't build such a project overnight."

Another economy is possible.

In the meantime, opportunities for retraining are scarce, even though initiatives have been launched bit by bit. On the cliff of Fnideq, a brand new training center, which serves as an incubator, has just opened its doors.

"Since 2019, we have financed 90 projects and 120 are in the process of being prepared," says the head of the center, Mohamed El Barkouki. "Our goal is to show that it is possible to succeed without smuggling. Unfortunately, these people have worked in border trade all their lives. It is difficult for them to imagine that another economy is possible. It will take time to restore confidence."

The prefecture, for its part, promised to create more training programs for "women mules," so-called because they carry huge bundles of goods on their backs between the Spanish enclave and the Moroccan territory. Rachida, 37 years old, hauled 100 kilograms three or four times a week for 20 years, even during her five pregnancies.

"In Ceuta, we were mistreated and humiliated, but at least we had an income," she says. "When my husband found out I was begging for money, he couldn't stand it; he broke my teeth."

For the inhabitants of Fnideq, living without smuggling still seems unthinkable. Even though the crisis has not spared Ceuta's economy, the Spanish enclave remains, in the eyes of many, the only way out.

Every day, Azeddine goes to a hill facing the Mediterranean to contemplate the coast. The small and frail 15 year old is training to prepare for the crossing. In this neighborhood, no one tries to dissuade him.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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