“Be careful,” says the Israeli border clerk as we pass into the Egyptian Sinai,
reigniting initial concerns that perhaps it’s still too volatile to be
vacationing at the resorts along the Red Sea.
RELATED:US urges citizens to avoid most travel to Syria
“Oh, don’t worry. We say
that to those entering Israel, too,” she adds reassuringly.
Travel to the
Middle East this year was supposed to reach record highs, but the Arab Spring
sent the numbers tumbling, as the violence and turmoil kept many away. But there
are signs of recovery in Egypt and in Israel, even as tourism continues to drop
in Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian areas.
Egypt’s Tourism Ministry has
announced special discounts for Ramadan (Muslim holy month) visitors,
particularly targeting the Gulf states. Egyptian Finance Minister Hazem
El-Beblawi told Reuters that the Egyptian government forecast revenues from
tourism would total $10 billion in the financial year that began on July 1,
compared with $11.6 billion in 2009/10.
El-Beblawi said the tourism
minister told him “occupancy in Sharm A-Sheikh and other places on the Red Sea
was systemically and constantly recovering. If this trend continues, by the end
of the year we will reach the normal level.”
According to the UN’s World
Tourism Organization, which monitors tourism trends, recovery has already been
seen through statistics showing that Egypt suffered an 80% drop in tourism in
February at the height of the anti-regime protests, but that by May it had
halved to 41% less.
“In a broader context, it should be underlined that
the Middle East has been the fastest growing region in the past decade in spite
of temporary disruptions and setbacks,” a UNWTO report said, adding that
international travel to the region had risen from 24 million to 60 million
annually in the past decade.
In Israel, more than 1.6 million visitors
arrived in the first half of the year, slightly over last year; and in June
alone, 262,000 came, which was a 25% increase over 2009.
“In the shadow
of the local and regional crises which had a direct effect on the region’s
image, the tourism industry has succeeded in maintaining incoming tourism and
even increasing it,” said Israel’s Tourism Minister Stas
Israel recently was ranked number one among developing
countries for adventure tourism, according to the Adventure Tourism Development
Index. “Despite the volatile security situation, Israel is not considered unsafe
by adventure travel experts,” the report said.
Alternatively, the annual
Maplecraft Terrorism Risk Index released this week ranked travel to the
Palestinian Territories sixth in the “extreme risk” category while Israel placed
Kholoud Daibes, Tourism Minister, Palestinian Authority, told The
Media Line that tourism was in fact down this year from last. Ironically, the
Palestinian territories have not been the scene of any major violent
“Last year we had two million [visitors]. This year we are
expecting 15% less due to the circumstances around us. We are around 700,000
until now,” Daibes said during a recent festival in the West Bank town of
“We would like to introduce Palestine with its diversity. With
its different, let’s say, image, than the one circulating in the media,” she
Syria and Lebanon, on the other hand, have seen tourism die a
painful death as Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad’s troops ratchet up the bloody
crackdown on popular unrest that erupted in March.
“We would be happy to
arrange for you a package that doesn’t take in the risky spots. The hotels are
offering very many special deals now,” a travel agent at Syritours, one of the
leading tour operators in Syria, said cheerfully when reached by
The Syrian Tourism Ministry’s “Damascus in August” brochure is
offering Ramadan night tours in the old market sponsored by the Iranian cultural
chancellery; and a film festival at the Russian culture center.
alleys of the Damascus suk [marketplace] should have been filled with tourists
this summer. Ironically, it was just a year ago that the New York Times rated
Syria in the top ten of the hottest places to visit in 2010. UNESCO has cited
Syria as the number one place in the world for archaeological sites.
until this Arab Spring and the bloody, ruthless suppression of anti-regime
protests during which human rights organizations say nearly 2,000 people have
been killed, tourist numbers had been steadily climbing. The United States and
European Union have issued severe travel warnings against visiting Syria and
have urged their citizens there to “depart immediately.”
Minister Lamia Assai said the unrest had been a blow to the
"Tourism has been the sector hardest hit by the incidents in
Syria," Assai told the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat. "Hotel reservations
have been cancelled as insurers refuse to cover tourists wishing to visit
"Tourist arrivals from Europe and the Arab Gulf States have
almost stopped," she said, adding that occupancy rates at hotels had plummeted
“to zero” during the summer holiday season.
The crisis has hit the
economy hard. Since the outbreak of the uprising, Syria's tourism sector - which
reportedly makes up 12 per cent of the economy - has almost completely ceased
Neighboring Lebanon, too, is suffering. Lebanon’s Tourism
Minister Fadi Aboud said last week that the country has lost most of its
tourists this year due to the unrest in Syria. Speaking to Radio Free Lebanon,
he said that restrictions on traveling through Syria have kept away tens of
thousands of tourists from neighboring countries.
According to UNWTO
figures, tourism to Syria is down 24% and Lebanon has seen a 19% drop.
am the only tourist I have seen during my visit to Syria. The beautiful boutique
hotels, established in restored Arab houses, lie empty. The rug stores and
galleries have no customers. There are no visitors to the castles and
archaeological sites of Syria,” Emma Sky, a former political adviser to US
forces in Iraq, wrote in Foreign Policy.
“I feel sad. Damascus is perhaps
the most beautiful city I have visited in the Middle East. Syrians are the
friendliest and kindest of people.”