Home to some of the world’s most breathtaking historical sites and cultural attractions, the Middle East has drawn the interest of travelers for many years. However, regional instability has caused the region’s tourist numbers to fluctuate, failing to build much year-over-year momentum.
Between 2005 and 2010, inbound tourism to the region saw tremendous growth, but Arab Spring and its aftermath caused the numbers to drop significantly over the following three years. Around this time, Saudi Arabia became a top destination in the Middle East, even though the country also saw its number of arrivals go down in both 2012 and 2013.
The area’s long history of conflict has given international travelers a reason to stay away, and many countries, like the United States and Canada, have issued travel advisories for large portions of the region. Attracting travelers despite the sense of possible danger has been one of the defining challenges facing the Middle East’s hotel industry, and it’s a big reason why the region’s tourism has not grown as steadily as other areas.
Differences Within the Region
The Middle East is often viewed as a single entity even though each country in the region faces its own challenges. While countries like Qatar and the UAE have high concentrations of wealth and are capable of attracting wealthy luxury travelers, this is not true for much of the region.
Conflict and other economic and political factors have resulted in differing circumstances for the travel industries. Here is a brief outlook on some of the region’s other major markets:
As mentioned earlier, Saudi Arabia managed to make gains in 2011 and has not suffered the same dramatic drop-offs as some of the region’s other major destinations. The country’s tourism industry currently relies heavily on religious tourists, many visiting Mecca for the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
However, Saudia Arabia is starting to loosen its strict visa policy in order to diversify its economy, which is heavily dependent on oil. In an effort to bring in tourists from non-Muslim majority countries, the kingdom is planning on making tourist visas available to citizens of 51 countries.
Another country that relies on travelers from other places in the Middle East, Lebanon’s allure as a tourist destination has been impacted by the civil war and refugee crisis in neighboring Syria. However, the qualities that have made Lebanon an intriguing place to visit are expected to draw in more tourists in the near future.
CNN Travel reports that a big reason for the country’s expected tourism boom is Saudi Arabia lifting its travel ban on the country, which was in effect between the fall of 2017 and early 2019. Even before the travel ban, Saudi Arabia’s tourism to Lebanon was on the decline. In 2011, the kingdom accounted for 19% of the Arab world’s arrivals to Lebanon, while in 2016 the number fell to just 8%.
A strong showing in 2018 has forecasters believing that the coming years will be prosperous for Turkey’s tourism industry. Even though political turmoil has hurt the once major tourist destination’s numbers over the last few years, 2019 and beyond may tell a different story. Trading Economics predicts that the country’s international arrivals will grow 13% between the fall of 2019 and 2020, and a few key markets have made significant contributions to their growth. Currently, the country brings in more UAE outbound travelers than anywhere but France.
Horwath finds that the number of visitors from outbound tourism giant China is on pace to double in 2019, and a record number of visitors from Germany is also expected. Turkey was one of the most popular destinations for Germans and travelers all over Europe, but it has not consistently maintained this status because of safety concerns.
Egypt’s outlook tells a similar story. While it is a perpetually attractive destination because of its world-renowned historical sites, the overthrow of the government in 2011 and ensuing instability caused Egypt’s tourism industry to suffer.
Today the sector is showing signs of rebounding but has seen ups and downs in their tourism numbers since the revolution. Egyptian tourism also faces obstacles due to the country’s infrastructure, with crowded roads and outdated railways. The good news for the country’s tourism sector is that 2018 may be a sign of better days to come, with Egypt’s travel economy posting its best numbers since before the revolution.
Drawing followers of Abrahamic religions and beach seekers from all corners of the world, Israel’s tourism numbers have increased steadily. This has led hoteliers to make big investments in the country through new openings and major renovations. Israel has seen its international arrivals rise over the last two summers, and saw a 16% year-over-year rise during the winter of 2019.
Confirmation from the Israeli government is required before a visa is granted to tourists from other countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Longstanding political and religious tensions have led the country to focus its travel marketing to other areas of the world, paying special attention to North America and Europe.
Attracting Travelers From the Region
While the area’s inbound tourism numbers are not consistently high, the Middle East is one of the fastest-growing regions for outbound tourism in the world. The interests of these travelers predictably vary depending on their country or social standing. Much like how the UAE attracts ultra-luxury tourists from all over the world, the opulent attractions of Dubai and Abu Dhabi also bring in many travelers from the Middle East and North Africa. In fact, Think with Google finds that Dubai is the number one destination for Middle Eastern travelers. Other top destinations include Paris, Istanbul, London, Barcelona, and New York — cities that are frequented by people from all over the world.
Many travelers from the area are also looking for lavish travel experiences when they come to Europe and North America. Visit California has recently launched an effort to widen its appeal to include luxury travelers from the Persian Gulf. To bring in these travelers hotels have been required to boost their service capabilities, as luxury travelers from countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council are said to have higher standards for five-star service.
This kind of service can be achieved by not only focusing on crafting an experience, as many hotel professionals have been doing in recent years, and instead focus on the product they are offering. This line of thinking is closer to the traditional idea of luxury hospitality, which concerned itself more with catering to every guest need.
California’s strategy goes beyond travel preferences and includes providing services that many travelers from Muslim-majority countries uniquely need, like Halal food options and space to perform the five daily prayers. However, it is important to remember that these travelers are ultimately looking to explore the destination like any other tourists and that they are looking for more than just to fulfill the obligations of their faith.
Asian markets have also turned to this practical way of bringing in tourists from the Middle East, including Malaysia, India and Taiwan. South Africa is another country that has identified the region as key to its inbound tourism growth, showing that the world is taking notice of its rising influence and that travelers from the Middle East will play a large role in shaping the world’s tourism outlook going forward.
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