Tourism is another casualty of insecurity in the Arab world
It is no surprise that war and unrest are scaring off tourists from the Middle East and North Africa.
As incidents in Tunisia and Egypt in particular have shown, jihadists are intentionally targeting Western tourists in a bid to cripple local economies and destroy economic and cultural ties between the Arab world and the West.
Islamic State (ISIS) extremists have also set about destroying ancient monuments in Iraq and Syria that have not only attracted tourists for decades but also embody the cultural heritage shared by the Middle East and the West.
The killing of 20 foreign tourists at the Bardo Museum in March and 38 others at the beach resort of Sousse in June has badly hurt the Tunisian tourism sector, which accounts for 7% of gross national product and provides 400,000 badly needed jobs. Visitor numbers to Tunisia were down 1 million from January till September this year, 25% fewer than in 2014.
In Egypt, terrorist attacks not only in the Sinai Desert but also in the capital Cairo have fed fears that the country’s tourism sector may not bounce back to levels seen before the 2011 uprising touched off a wave of instability.
Egypt’s tourism sector had been on the rebound. The number of tourists visiting Egypt dropped from 14.7 million in 2010 to 9.3 million in 2013 but improved to nearly 10 million in 2014 and was expected to reach 11 million this year.
But the killing of eight Mexican tourists, mistaken for terrorists by the Egyptian Army in the Western Desert on September 13th, will not help.
Other countries in the Middle East and North Africa have faced fallout from terrorist attacks and the horrific violence of Syria’s civil war. The number of European tourists visiting Jordan, a neighbour of Syria, was down 27% in the first quarter of 2015.
Escalating tensions in Turkey led the US government to issue a travel warning and cruise ships no longer dock in Istanbul. Turkey’s tourism revenues dropped nearly 14% in the second quarter of 2015 compared to the same period a year earlier.
Even in Lebanon, as reported in this issue, ongoing unrest is expected to dent the tourism sector, according to Moody’s rating agency. Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where many of Lebanon’s tourists traditionally come from, have all issued travel warnings.
The economic stakes are also high at a time when most countries of the region cannot afford to lose the hard currency revenues and the job opportunities provided by tourism. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the total direct and indirect contributions of travel and tourism activities to the gross domestic product (GDP) of Middle East countries amounted to 7.4% in 2014. Tourism and travel accounted for almost the same percentage in terms of contributions to employment in the region. For North Africa, the percentages are more than 11%.
Countries in the region face a serious image problem but marketing strategies alone will do little to help if stability and security are not ensured.
The lives of people are at stake and the safety of travellers should be the paramount consideration. For tourism to continue, sound security policies and efficient international cooperation are needed. This includes continuous review of travel warnings by Western nations to check whether countries of the region are offering safer conditions for travel. Tourism can ultimately be one of the main engines of growth in the region.