The quandary of tourism in MENA

Friday 01/01/2016
Tourists sunbathe in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, last November.

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.”