The quandary of tourism in MENA
Tunis - With the approach of the New Year, wishes of good things ahead are the tradition. However, to those Middle East and North African countries involved in tourism and the companies and individuals who are dependent on tourism, “wishes” might not be enough.
There is general agreement that tourism is suffering in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, despite the fact that these are not countries experiencing ongoing conflicts, such as in their neighbours in Syria, Libya and Iraq.
Yet, tourism professionals attribute the region’s tourism decline to the perceived notion by many in the West that the entire region is unsafe. “Media (are) much to blame for not making distinctions between the conflicts in certain countries and the occasional terrorist attack from the general normalcy,” notes Malia Asfour, director of the Jordan Tourism Board for North America. “The sensationalism in the media doesn’t help at all. Unfortunately, the fear factor plays a big role.”
The media and a lack of a counter narrative following various terrorist attacks, regardless of where they have occurred, increases consumer fear. “Islamophobia has increased,” notes Earl Starkey, a long-time Turkey specialist and the owner of Sophisticated Travel, an agency in Turkey. “Islamophobia is the challenge for all of us who sell Muslim countries.”
Manal Kelig, an Egyptologist and director of Great Wonders of Egypt agrees, saying: “We see closed minds try to rule the homelands of the source markets that feed the MENA region tourism industry.”
“What is the way back to the once healthy level of tourism?” she asks. “This is the question that tourism stakeholders must work vigorously and creatively to address.”
In the countries noted above, specialists indicated tourism-related revenue drops of 50-80%. These types of figures differ from those reported by government statistics “but hotel occupancy rates hovering around 20% tell the true story”, notes a North American tour operator who has long been active in Tunisia’s tourism.
Statistics have been known to skew the real picture. “Taking into account the number of Libyans and Algerians who regularly cross into Tunisia can show a less dire situation,” he adds. “But this only plays into the lethargy of trying to combat the downward spiral through creative marketing.”
“When there is no communication strategy, or counter narrative to the media reports, which too often take place only when negative incidents take place” the normalcy that is the everyday reality in Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Tunisia remains unknown to prospective travellers.
“I wish that the regional countries would increase their marketing and promotions and invite a lot of journalists,” notes Asfour. “The only way to combat misperception from the media is by taking the media to these destinations. We take many journalists and influencers from North America and all over the world every year to Jordan so that the journalists and influencers can experience what the country has to offer.”
Informing prospective travellers as to what a country is doing to help ensure safety and security is also a strategy that is most important in gaining consumer trust. Citing the succession of isolated terrorist attacks on Egyptian soil the last five years, Jim Berkeley, chief executive officer of Destinations & Adventures International, whose company focused on Egypt for many years noted that: “This last incident, the downing of the Russian plane, actually has been the proverbial “nail in the coffin” for Egyptian tourism, since a number of European nations ceased flights into Sharm el-Sheikh (not Cairo) but the blow back has affected people considering travel to Cairo as well.
“What Egypt needs to do at this point, rather than continue denying the obvious to protect the image of its security services, is to admit that the plane was brought down by a bomb and that in fact it was planted by an infiltrator working at Sharm el-Sheikh Airport. This will show that they are truly putting security in a position of priority,” Berkeley said.
The risks of MENA countries not aggressively tackling the rebuilding of their tourism industries, when their countries are so dependent on tourism for providing employment and revenues, has hidden dangers that go beyond the economic damage.
Without showing the public that they are doing everything possible to provide the highest security and placing “hospitality” to foreign tourists as a major goal, they run the risk of having the Western traveller misinterpret this lack of action as the country no longer being tourist-oriented. With this further demise, the socio-economic ramifications of perpetual loss of jobs and incomes can lead to more revolutions and increasing instability in the region.
“Not being vigorous in tourism marketing and failing to highlight security as a priority will be the kiss of death to a country’s tourism industry. And that,” notes the North American tour operator, “is where the dangers of the alienated gravitating to alternative such as ISIS will only become worse.”