Ups and downs of tourism in the Levant

Egypt says its tourism is bouncing back, but tourists stay away from Syria, Lebanon following concerns over volatile region; Israel unaffected.

Camel in Taba311 (photo credit: Linda Gallant)
Camel in Taba311
(photo credit: Linda Gallant)
“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.
“Oh, don’t worry. We say that to those entering Israel, too,” she adds reassuringly.
RELATED:US urges citizens to avoid most travel to Syria
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 Misezhnikov.
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 20th.
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 events.
“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 Birzeit.
“We would like to introduce Palestine with its diversity. With its different, let’s say, image, than the one circulating in the media,” she added.
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 telephone.
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.
The 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.
And 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.”
Syrian Tourism Minister Lamia Assai said the unrest had been a blow to the industry.
"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 Syria.”
"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 operations.
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.
“I 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.”