Over the past decade the Middle East has shaken off its ‘danger zone’ reputation of being a place where only the foolhardy or “conflicted tourists” would plan a holiday. Since 2000, the number of tourists visiting the region (excluding Turkey and Israel) has more than doubled, from 24.9 million to more than 53 million. And while 2009 saw a 5 percent slump in international tourist arrivals, the region was only behind Northeast Asia globally in the rise in tourists in 2010, up 16.1 percent, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.
Perceived heightened stability, investment, infrastructure development and marketing campaigns have all contributed to tourism in places other than long-term favorites Egypt, Turkey and the Holy Land.
The rise has partly been fuelled by wary Westerners warming to the Middle East as an attractive vacation destination, after being swayed by the flurry of advertising campaigns and travel articles extolling old Damascus’s charms, Dubai’s palatial hotels and Beirut’s infamous ‘phoenix rising from the ashes’ reputation. However, inter-regional tourism has been a key driver for the sector and has corresponded with the emergence of low cost air carriers and the aggressive expansion of Middle Eastern airlines in general.
The rise in tourism has also dove-tailed with a resurgent middle class with the desire and funds to take a trip within the region but not quite enough cash to splurge on a family holiday to Europe or America. Syria has become a regional poster child in this regard, with its tourism sector exploding since the economy was opened up at the beginning of this century; visitor numbers have surged from two million in 2004 to nearly six million in2010. What is notable is that the majority of tourists are from the Gulf, with2.9 million Arabs visiting in 2010, compared to 1.35 million tourists from other, primarily European, countries.
It has been the increased openness of countries that has really encouraged the inter-regional tourism boom, with Damascus scrapping visas for Iranians and Turks and Turkey abolishing visas in 2010 for Syrians and Lebanese. Once the regulations changed, there was a 117 percent rise in Iranian visitors to Syria, while the Turkish-Syrian agreement encouraged482,000 Syrian holidaymakers to stream into Turkey, an 113 percent increase, and an 170 percent rise in Turks heading to their southern neighbor. This sensible bi-lateral move resulted in the largest jump worldwide in visitors between two countries in 2010.
Meanwhile, Ankara’s decision led to 73 percent more Lebanese visiting Turkey than in 2009, and easier visas and marketing campaigns led to74 percent more tourists from the United Arab Emirates, a 60 percent rise from Iran and a 47 percent increase from Saudi Arabia. While Arab and Iranian tourist numbers surged, Ankara’s strained relations with Tel Aviv resulted in a41 percent drop in Israeli tourists, to 80,000 visitors.
That’s not much of a surprise though, as politics and outbreaks of violence frequently cause the region’s tourism figures to yo-yo from one year to the next. But with all the development and infrastructure investment underway — from airport expansion in the Levant and the colossal aviation hubs in the UAE and Qatar, to the new resorts and hotels being built —the region is on track to becoming a top global travel and tourism destination. Indeed, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the Middle East’s tourist and travel economy is forecast to rise 149 percent by 2020 from the current $173 billion to $430 billion.
What should be addressed is the scale and feasibility of tourism projects. Mass tourism — as compared to more sustainable tourism that is not primarily seasonal — can have negative social and environmental ramifications. Now is the time for the public and private sectors to plan ahead.
The easing of border and visa restrictions should also expand further to bolster regional travel for Middle Eastern citizens and foreigners; as Turkey and Syria have clearly demonstrated, scrapping visas makes visitor figures jump. In Syria’s case, the country received $2 billion more in tourism revenues in 2010 than the year before.
PAUL COCHRANE is the Middle East correspondent for International News Services