By Souhail Karam
RABAT (Reuters) - Organizers of an all-gay cruise on Saturday blamed Moroccan officials for the cancellation of what would have been the first visit of its kind to a Muslim country, but the tourism minister denied the ship was banned and said its passengers were welcome.
Cruise liner Holland America Line and trip organizer RSVP Vacations told the 2,100 holiday-makers aboard the MS Nieuw Amsterdam ship that the July 1 visit to Casablanca had been cancelled.
"Our port agent in Casablanca has advised us that authorities in Morocco have -- despite previous confirmations -- now denied our scheduled visit," the two companies said in a letter tweeted to news organizations by passengers of the ship.
"For all of us, this is a very disappointing development," they added. "It was ultimately the decision by local authorities in Morocco that has necessitated us to adjust our plans."
The Casablanca visit was supposed to be the first and the only non-European leg of a week-long journey for the cruise liner, which sailed from Barcelona on Friday with mostly American and European passengers.
Morocco's Tourism Minister Lahcen Haddad said no official decision had been made to prevent the ship from stopping in Morocco.
"We don't ban cruise ships here and we never ask our visitors about their sexual preferences," he told Reuters. Asked if the MS Nieuw Amsterdam could still visit Morocco, he said: "They can if the organizers want to".
Haddad is from the secular Popular Movement Party, a junior partner in Morocco's ruling coalition led by moderate Islamists of the Justice and Development Party (PJD).
PJD came to power in December, riding a regional wave of support for Islamist movements amid Arab revolts but saying it would not impose a strict moral code. The tourism sector accounts for 10 percent of Morocco's GDP and 450,000 jobs.
The cruise ship's visit had caught the attention of local media in this generally conservative society where the law deems same-gender sexual relationships "lewd or unnatural" and punishes them with six months to three years in jail. No political parties call for ending laws against homosexuality.
Morocco has an Islamic-inspired penal code that bans sex outside marriage and Moroccans buying alcohol, but authorities favor a tolerant brand of Islam in which young urban couples display affection in the street and locals often outnumber tourists in bars and night clubs.
That has partly helped Morocco to attract large numbers of tourists, especially from western Europe, providing much-needed foreign currency and jobs to an economy that lacks the oil riches of neighboring states.
(Reporting By Souhail Karam; Editing by Roger Atwood)