Recovering tourism amid the Arab Spring: any hope in sight?

Mohamed El-Hebeishy, Friday 6 May 2011

In a region gripped by political turmoil, the tourism industry is struggling, reveals the Arabian Travel Market fair in Dubai

Egyptian Tourist Authority pavilion at the Arabian Travel Market – Photo by Mohamed El Hebeishy
Egyptian Tourist Authority pavilion at the Arabian Travel Market – Photo by Mohamed El Hebeishy

On 2-5 May, the Arabian Travel Market (ATM) held its 18th fair in Dubai. It comes at a time when the winds of change are sweeping much of the Arab region.

Tunisia was the first to revolt and the first to be hit by tourist cancellations. “Tunisia saw the number of tourists drop by 40 per cent from January to mid-April compared to 2010,” said Slah Bin Dekhil of the National Tourism Office of Tunisia. Egypt’s tourism sector is in no better shape, as it suffered $1.8 billion in direct losses in the period between beginning of February and mid-April.

“There are other indirect loses, of taxes that were not paid by the tourism sector, and the services sector which relies on tourism,” said First Assistant Minister of Tourism Hesham Zaazou who attended this year's ATM.

In comparison to other countries in the region, Egypt and Tunisia are on the lucky side. While in Yemen tourist cancellations rocketed from 75 per cent in March to 90 per cent in April, in Syria tourism has all but disappeared. “There are zero bookings now; we are broke,” commented Iyad Abu Al-Shamat, general manager of Destinations Tours and Travels in Syria.

As the dusts settles in Tunisia as well as Egypt both countries are racing against time to recover their tourism industries. A significant contributor to both countries’ economies, the tourism sector employs one in every seven Egyptians and about 450,000 Tunisians. It also contributes to 11.2 per cent and 6.5 per cent of GDP in Egypt and Tunisia respectively.

After most countries lifted their travel advisories, Tunisia is optimistic about the summer season, while Egypt is hopeful tourists could be back by September/October this year.

“We are working on the marketing plan for Egypt to get tourists back to the country with our marketing strategy focusing on safety and security. We are planning trips for the media to see how safe our country is,” said Hesham Zaazou.

Egypt is paying extra attention to the Arab market, sketching incentive programmes for charter flights flying directly from various Arab countries and into different national destinations like Hurghada, Sharm El-Sheikh and Luxor.

“The tourist flow from Arab countries to Egypt reached 14 per cent of the total international tourist flow to Egypt in 2010. Egypt received about 2.1 million Arab tourists out of a total of 14.7 million tourists Egypt received in 2010, representing 19.7 per cent of the total number of touristic nights," Zaazou said when visiting the Egyptian Tourist Authority (ETA) pavilion earlier Tuesday.

The ATM fair was not restricted to countries only, but was open also included tour operators, travel agencies, touristic property developers, car rental agencies, and of course airlines. Dubai-based Emirates Airlines and Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways took centre stage. While the Emirates built a replica of its A380 shower spa, the only shower spa available at 43,000 feet, Etihad promoted Formula 1 Etihad Airway Abu Dhabi Grand Prix by bringing in F1 racing car replicas and virtual F1 racing.

In its 2010 edition, the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) Tourism Highlights report predicted the Middle East to achieve an average year-on-year growth rate of five per cent, exceeding the world’s average growth rate of 4.1 per cent by a good 22 per cent. The grass might not look that green for 2011, but if a revolution managed to change a country as big as Egypt in just 18 days, the nine years left until 2020 could see UNWTO's forecast of 69 million tourists visiting the Middle East met.

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