Tourism In The Middle East Fights Back Despite Turmoil

After being hit hard by the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war, the Middle East’s troubled tourism markets are fighting back even as political hurdles remain.

By
Robert Anderson
June 14, 2014

Even as the likes of Dubai and Oman look to capitalise on ever growing tourist numbers, other parts of the Middle East are facing a challenge in returning to their once healthy levels of tourism.

The impact of unrest in the Middle East has been profound on once vibrant markets such as Egypt and Lebanon.

In Lebanon, visitor arrivals fell 6.69 per cent year-on-year in 2013 to 1.27 million, according to the country’s tourism ministry, significantly lower than the record 2.3 million the country received in 2010.

Beirut, the country’s capital, posted the largest occupancy decrease of any city in the MENA region in March 2014, falling 25.1 per cent to 38.9 per cent, according to travel intelligence firm STR Global. RevPar (revenue per available room) also fell the most in the city over the same period, decreasing 29.8 per cent to $54.45.

This coincided with violent clashes between supporters and opponents of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad that left at least 25 dead.

“There has been a crisis in the [Lebanese] tourism industry for many reasons,” says Michel Pharaon, Lebanon’s tourism minister.

“One of them was the political crisis linked to tensions in Lebanon that went on for two years. There was also a lack of understanding with some countries,” he says. “Now there is a new government which has given a priority to security.”

Through this security plan, the work of a new unity government formed in February after a 10-month political stalemate, Lebanon is hoping to encourage tourists to come back this summer.

EGYPT’S TOURISM PLAN

Egypt too is enduring an extended period of instability that started with the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Tourist numbers dropped from more than 14.7 million in 2010 to 9.8 million after the revolution. But having risen again in 2012 to 11.5 million, they shrank to 9.5 million last year with many prospective travellers put off by the threat of violence.

Three Korean tourists were killed in a bus bombing this February in South Sinai, while suicide bombers also struck in the Sharm El-Sheikh region in May, killing a soldier and wounding eight others.

Figures from state media estimate that 755,000 tourists visited the country in March, a 32.4 per cent decline year-on- year, and revenue from tourism fell 41 per cent last year to $5.9 billion.

In a bid to turn around the country’s fortunes, Egyptian Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou announced in May ambitious plans to revitalise the country’s tourism sector.

“Our plan is to attract more than 25 million tourists by 2020. Revenues generated will double from the 2010 peak of $12.5 billion to $25 billion within the coming six years,” he told Reuters.

LIFTING TRAVEL BANS

Key to the recovery of Lebanon’s tourism market will be the return of Arab travellers, for whom the country was a popular summer retreat in more peaceful times.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE all renewed advisories for citizens not to travel to Lebanon earlier this year due to instability.

“This was more than a travel ban. There was almost, at one time, a boycott from some Gulf countries for many reasons,” says Pharaon.

However, in May, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the country, Ali Awad Assiri, returned after a month long absence, and said the Kingdom was not imposing a travel ban on Lebanon for its citizens, according to Zawya.

Now the Lebanese Tourism Minister believes there are indications that GCC countries will soon begin to lift their travel restrictions.

“There are no more political misunderstandings and there is an observation that things are moving forward,” he says.

“We have strong reasons to believe that there will be a green light before the end of May. There are no guarantees yet, but this is what we are aiming for.

CAMPAIGNING FOR CHANGE

Egypt’s ambitious 2020 plan is being driven by a three-year marketing campaign hoping to attract tourists and investors.

This will target India, China and Latin American countries among others, with Egypt also looking to partner with Gulf carriers Etihad Airways and Emirates Airlines, Zaazou told Reuters.

The country is also calling on GCC developers and hotel managers to invest in the market, and in that vein, sold five plots of land on the Red Sea coast earlier this year.

“Even though perhaps it’s a little bit difficult right now, we still have fundamentally high hopes for Egypt. It is a great market. It has great inventory, great product. It’s physical location as well as its price point is correct and nicely set,” says Nicolas Mayer, industry leader, lodging and tourism at PwC on Egypt’s hotel market.

Lebanon also launched its own campaign at Arabian Travel Market, dubbed Live Love Lebanon. The campaign is designed to focus on Lebanon’s strong points with tourist programmes also targeting eco and alternative travellers.

Pharaon highlights Lebanon’s wine producers, hiking and trekking opportunities, the country’s mountains and summer festivals, as attractions.

Analysts tend to agree with Pharaon and believe that the Lebanese market also holds potential, particularly Beirut.

“There is historically a reason for going to Beirut from the Middle East and at the same time Beirut has started growing again in Europe as an ‘in’ destination,” says Mayer. “People talk about Beirut as somewhere to go with the guys for a four-day weekend. If the circumstantial situation improves, I think we’ll see some good news there.”

Alison Cashmore, director regional hospitality and leisure assurance lead PwC Dubai, says that Beirut has the benefit of having an attraction for both international and domestic travellers. “Not all cities in the region have that,” she says.

POLITICAL HURDLES

Yet political uncertainty in both countries still remains a barrier to returning to pre Arab Spring tourism levels.

Many would be tourists are expected to wait for Egypt’s presidential elections (happening as we go to print), and a subsequent calming of political tensions, before making their bookings.

“Tourism in Egypt has its captive audience and a major flow of tourists will happen once the political scene is settled,” Zaazou told Reuters.

Lebanon too is facing a similar situation, with MPs having failed to elect a president due to an ongoing boycott by several March 8 coalition parties.

They have until May 25 to elect a new president or the cabinet of Prime Minister Tammam Salam will assume presidential power until the deadlock is broken.

Despite some uncertainty remaining, Pharaon remains hopeful that Arab travellers will return to Lebanon this summer.

“The message is that they know our country and are friends of Lebanon, they were prevented and cautioned not to go there for reasons we understand,” he says.

“I believe and we hope that the summer will permit them to come back and if they come, they will see that the vitality of Lebanon can return very quickly.”

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