Tourism growth a ‘mixed blessing’ for some countries in the Middle East

Experts agree that from 2017, both Turkey and Egypt are more stable than in previous years.
Sunday 23/09/2018
A tourist boat sails in the Mediterranean in Adrasan, 100kms west of Antalya. (AP)
Signs of recovery. A tourist boat sails in the Mediterranean in Adrasan, 100kms west of Antalya. (AP)

After the start of the “Arab spring” in 2010-11, tourism in the Middle East stalled. Perhaps “plummeted” would be a better word. The drop in tourist arrivals and tourism receipts was precipitous. Visitors from Europe and North America — the big spenders — stayed away, afraid of the violent upheaval in many countries in the region, as well as terrorist attacks on foreign visitors, especially in Egypt.

That may be changing. The United Nations’ World Tourism Organisation’s 2018 report has encouraging news. The region saw a 13% increase in tourist arrivals; Bahrain, Jordan and the Palestinian territories saw strong growth and traditionally popular spots, such as Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, continued to enjoy sustained growth.

The changing picture is not because tourists from Europe and North America are returning in large numbers to the region but because many Middle Eastern countries are tapping new markets. They are hopeful of attracting tourists from emerging economies, especially India and China.

While the average number of visitors to the region is below the global average, it is improving year on year. This is particularly true for Turkey and Egypt.

The World Tourism Organisation stated that Turkey was the eighth most popular tourism destination in 2017, with almost 38 million tourism arrivals. That puts Turkey just a few hundred thousand visitors behind the United Kingdom. While Turkey has been one of the most popular tourist destinations for years, 2017 saw a 24.1% increase on 2016 arrivals. Turkey also had a 12.8% increase in tourism receipts in 2017, the largest annual rise of any country.

Egypt also did well. After disastrous 2015 and 2016 tourism seasons, there was a massive rebound in visitors. The World Tourism Organisation report listed Egypt the world’s fastest growing tourism destination in 2017, with a 55.1% increase in arrivals. Not only did some European tourists return to Egypt, it also drew visitors from new markets to the east. The influx brought Egypt close to past tourism numbers and is a sign that foreigners once again feel it’s safe to visit.

The changing picture is a mixed blessing, said Bulent Aliriza, founding director of the Turkey Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He said increasing arrivals in Turkey can be explained by the return of the Russians and the fall of the Turkish lira.

“Russia provides the largest number of tourists to Turkey in terms of percentage,” Aliriza said. “The Russian tourists stopped coming because of the crisis in terms of the shooting down of the Russian jet. The Russian government made it a bit more difficult for Russian tourists to go to Turkey and therefore they stopped coming.”

Tourism figures from 2016 and 2017 bear out the changing nature of Turkey’s relationship with Russia. In 2016, Turkey drew just more than 855,000 Russian visitors. In 2017, after relations between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan improved, the number skyrocketed to just less than 4.7 million — 15% of all visitors to Turkey.

Iranians were among the unexpected arrivals who boosted Turkey’s tourism numbers. Iranian visitors increased by almost 800,000 to 2.4 million in 2017.

“Iranians find it difficult to travel to other countries,” said Aliriza, “but you may know the old adage, if you come from the East, Turkey is a Western country and, if you come from the West, Turkey is an Eastern country. So, if you get on a plane in Tehran and travel to Istanbul, you feel like you’re going to Paris.”

The other important factor is the lira’s fall. Tourists love bargains, Aliriza said, and the decline of its currency makes Turkey an attractive destination. As part of the 100-day programme he announced in early August, Erdogan said Turkey would be looking to expand in new markets such as India and China.

Experts agree that from 2017, both Turkey and Egypt are more stable than in previous years. Egypt, like Turkey, has suffered a currency devaluation, making it a bargain for tourists. Both Egypt and Turkey offer historical and cultural sites that are hard to find elsewhere.

That said, Aliriza warned against complacency. Turkey and Egypt could be severely hit by terrorist attacks, he said.

“Both countries are one bad incident away from having the recovery stall. If there was an attack on a bus full of tourists in Alexandria or Giza, or in front of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul, it would have an immediate effect on people,” he said. “The higher the level of terrorism and the more publicity it gets, the lower the level of tourism.”

It’s a good point. But, for now, the outlook is good.