Tourists are coming back to the Middle East

Unrest, Islam are still a problem, but arrivals, hotel occupancies are on the upswing.

Sinai tourists snorkel 370 (photo credit: reuters)
Sinai tourists snorkel 370
(photo credit: reuters)
Not so long ago written off as a victim of the Arab Spring no less than Hosni Mubarak or Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali, the Middle East and North Africa’s (MENA) tourism industry is showing signs of revival even as unrest continues to stir across much of the region.
The latest sign of the recovery in hotel-occupancy figures from STR Global, a London-based company that tracks the worldwide hotel industry, which reported occupancy rates jumped 14.6% across in the Middle East and Africa in March from a year earlier to an average of 65.1%. The occupancy rate was higher than either Europe or North America.
The outlook for the region, in spite of its continued political gyration, is looking better. “Arab Spring countries are expected to witness a rebound in 2012, but volatility continues to cast a shadow over the region,” market research firm Euromonitor International said in a review of global travel trends. 
Arab Spring unrest took a heavy toll on Middle Eastern tourism last year unrest erupted in major regional tourism destinations like Tunisia and Egypt as well as Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. While international tourist arrivals grew worldwide by 4% in 2011, in the MENA region they dropped 8.8%, with the worst-hit countries reporting double-digit drops, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).
For MENA economies, already struggling with high unemployment and difficulties competing in the global economy, the drop in tourism has been particularly hard. In Tunisia, the industry accounts for about 8% of the economy and provides about 400,000 jobs when times are good.
Surprisingly, the biggest increases occurred in countries still suffering varying degrees of political turmoil and concerns about the growing power of Islamists, according to STR. 
STR said occupancy rates soared 91% in Egypt, a figure backed up by official tourism data which shows that tourist arrivals to the country rose 32% in the first quarter from a year ago to 2.5 million even as the country copes with political unrest and violence, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula, the home of some of its most popular resorts.
Egypt is also in the midst of a wrenching debate about the role of Islam, with some religious leaders urging the country clamp down on alcohol sales and immodest dress by women, two measures that if implemented industry executives say would discourage Western tourists.
Occupancy rates in Bahrain, whose government is struggling to quell more than a year of anti-government protests, led the way, jumping 112%. In Jordan, which is next door to civil-war wracked Syria, they increased about 55%.
Tunisia’s Tourism Ministry reports that in January and the first three weeks of February, overseas tourist arrival climbed 72% from a year ago. Mohamed Ali Toumi, president of the Tunisian Federation of Travel Agencies and Tourism, says that if arrivals this year reach 80% of their 2010 level that will signal recovery is on the way. So far, the benchmark is being reached.
Tunisia’s latest tourism numbers were so good that Tourism Minister Elyes Fakhfakh had to defend them against critics who expressed doubts about their accuracy at a travel conference two weeks ago. The skeptics were part of a “denigrating campaign,” he said. Interpretation of these indicators could differ from one person to another, but doubting them is libelous.”
As the Tunisian numbers testify, MENA’s tourism industry, at least in the Arab Spring trouble spots, is still not back at its pre-revolution levels and probably won’t reach them again until 2013 at the earliest. In Egypt and Bahrain, occupancy rates even after the big rise were around 45-46% in March, 20 percentage points below the regional average.
“The big percentage increases you see this month and very likely over the coming months are the bounces off the very weak performance last year. Whilst these do show that guests have been returning to the hotels, some of the high percentage changes occur due to the low base value from last year,” Konstanze Auernheimer, director of marketing and analysis at STR Global, told The Media Line in an e-mail.
The difficulties Bahrain faced this past week hosting its annual Formula One Grand Prix -- a tourist draw as much as a sports event -- point up the problem for countries that have yet to put their political house in order.
At the height of unrest last year, the race was cancelled as Bahrain’s Shiite majority clashed with police over demands for more political rights from the Sunni monarchy. This year Bahrain lobbied heavily to bring the race back as a boost to the economy and a sign that stability had returned despite continued street protests or reports by human rights abuses.
The race went ahead as planned, but was shadowed by protests and a campaign by opposition leaders and rights groups to get the events cancelled or at least use it as a platform to highlight their grievances.
As a Michael Jackson impersonator was performing for racing fans this week, opposition activists burned tires outside the hotel where many of the drivers were staying. Official estimates put attendance at 27,000 or 28,000, versus a capacity of 34,000. Newspaper reports say the grandstand was only half-full for the formation lap.
On Tuesday, an explosion wounded four policemen during clashes in one of the anti-government strongholds.
European hotel operator Accor told that is delaying opening its 304-room Ibis Manama Seef Hotel in Bahrain this year as well as three properties in Syria due to unrest. “As soon as the situation in Bahrain and Syria stabilizes, the hotels will be resumed,” an unidentified spokesperson said.
Encouraged by the upswing already in place, Tourism officials and executives around the region are convinced that they can give the trend a boost by marketing.
At this year’s Arab Travel Market conference, which kicks off April 30, a panel of industry leaders is scheduled to discuss strategies for improving the region’s image and bring back visitors, including the use of advertising and media campaigns, targeting new markets and attracting investors.
Euromonitor forecasts about 5% compounded annual growth in tourist arrivals for Egypt between 2011 and 2016 and about 5.5% for the entire region. Morocco’s growth, it predicted, would be a slower 2.3%, but the average is tourist is likely to spend more on his or her holiday. Saudi Arabia will lead the way with arrivals of over 10% followed by the UAE with more than 7%, it said.
“The UAE will continue to benefit from consumers seeking out destinations deemed to be safer, at the expense of North African destinations like Tunisia and Morocco,” Euromonitor said.
Tunisia has already drawn up a roadmap for the next two years for promoting tourism, focusing on travelling from next door Libya and Algeria as well as from China, Russia and the U.S. Fakhfakh, the tourism minister, told Agence France Presse that Tunisia aims to win back the 2.2 million tourists that chose to holiday elsewhere in 2011. “Tunisia could recover all of its loses by 2013,” he predicted.