Can Middle East Tourism Ever Recover?

Middle East

Kevin Rushby, The Guardian, November 24, 2015

It was a wild night in the Yemeni port of Aden. At the first nightclub, we met a group of musicians who had finished their set and were drinking local beer – made in Arabia’s only brewery. They said we should all go to the Mövenpick hotel club. They promised a sensational evening.

When we arrived, a full Egyptian orchestra in tuxedos was already whipping up a storm of wailing and crashing for a Syrian bellydancer who was gyrating across the tables. The songs were all classics from the 1930s and 40s by singers such as Umm Kulthum, Sayed Darwish and Mohamed Fawzy, an urgent storm of melancholy and longing. I felt we had entered an orientalist’s paradise: the world of classic Egyptian cinema and Flaubert’s Cairo. No one mentioned the explosion in the car park a few weeks before. None of us noticed that we were witnessing the end of an era in the Arab world.

That was early 1993 and the bomb in the Mövenpick car park had been put there on 29 December 1992 by an obscure Afghan war veteran called Osama bin Laden. It was his first terror operation.

He had wanted to murder some US marines, targeting the Mövenpick and the nearby Gold Mohur hotel, but the two bombs instead killed one Austrian tourist and one local. At the time, the incident barely made the press and Bin Laden’s role was not known until much later, but you could say that, right from the start, western tourism and jihadist terrorism were fatally linked.

With Yemen in the midst of war, there are no tourists in Aden now, nor in Sana’a, the mountain city to the north whose ancient centre used to be on many people’s wishlists, along with other currently inaccessible World Heritage sites such as Libya’s Leptis Magna, Syria’s Palmyra (or what’s left of it) and the Afghan buddhas of Bamiyan. And if Sana’a, supposedly founded by Noah’s son Shem, is still largely intact, in terms of visitors it is dead. The hotels of the Old City, grand merchants’ tower houses converted in the 1990s, lie empty as do the astonishing samasir, the vast labyrinthine caravanserai, some of which had been converted to tourist-oriented craft workshops and markets. There are no visitors, not even the sort of occasional intrepid adventurer that used to come in the 18th century. Anyone who once depended on tourists for a living has moved on. There are stories of younger men heading off on the long road to Europe. No doubt others are feeling the lure of jihadist causes, particularly as that path brings weaponry, money and respect. The country is in the grip of a civil war that offers little likelihood of ending soon. An entire generation of travellers may never experience Yemen, missing out on a unique civilisation. Nor will the country gain what it deserves, and needs: friends and admirers in the outside world.


Bab Yemen Square in Sana’a, the ancient jewel of Yemen.

Bab Yemen Square in Sana’a, the ancient jewel of Yemen. Photograph: Alamy

In Syria and Libya, the story is similar: an optimistic, and brief, surge in tourism brought to a rapid demise by conflict. These were relatively small markets but, with 2015 proving to be an annus horribilis for terrorist attacks, there are serious concerns that the downward plunge is about to be repeated across the entire Middle East, dragging down mass tourist destinations such as Egypt, Morocco and Turkey. A multi-billion-dollar industry is teetering on the brink of collapse, a disaster that could leave millions jobless and faced with the grim choices of a hopeless existence, perilous emigration or violence. In Egypt alone, 1.3 million people directly depend on the tourism. Yeganeh Morakabati, who researches the subject of tourism and terrorism at Bournemouth University, puts it like this: “The tourist industry in the Middle East may have reached a tipping point. It doesn’t look good at all, certainly in the short term.”

Those gloomy words are backed up by eyewitness evidence. All across the region, even in areas untouched by violence, you can see empty hotels, lines of concrete boxes standing close to beaches, beauty spots and ancient cities. One recent visitor to Petra in Jordan told me he had the place to himself. Another returnee from Sinai, post-Russian Airbus bomb, mentions driving past the shells of unfinished hotels on the road between resorts. When asked why they weren’t open, the taxi driver’s reply was simple: “No tourists.” In Luxor one recent visitor asked about the hundreds of river boats all tied up and disused. “Tourism,” her guide declared gloomily, “Is the oxygen of Egypt.”

Most investors will never see anything back from those stalled ventures. Yassar al-Majali, head of the Jordan’s Hotel Association, admits to me that 10 hotels has closed in Petra, despite the government slashing electricity prices by half. “We need to work hard to attract new clients,” he says. “Maybe the Russians who used to go to Sharm el-Sheikh, the Chinese or Indians. If we don’t, there will be 10 more closing.”

In Tunisia, scene of two terrible tourist massacres this year, hotels have scraped through the season on local holidaymakers, but the foreigners are staying away and no one knows what the future holds. Even in Turkey, people are already experiencing a serious downturn. Alkan Sisli, a guide who I have travelled with around Şanliurfa in the east of the country, tells me most tours there have been cancelled. One of his favourite spots, the sixth-century monastery of Darul Zafaran near Mardin, has seen visitor numbers drop by 90% this year. Another young guide, Ossama Mahmoud, in Jordan, bemoans that his country is seen as unsafe, tainted by association with violent neighbours. “Thousands have already lost their jobs,” he says. “I used to do a tour every week; now I’d be lucky to get half that.”


Divers in the waters off Sharm el-Sheikh

Divers in the waters off Sharm el-Sheikh: Egypt has been particularly badly hit by terrorism. Photograph: Getty Images

The problem doesn’t stop with tours and hotels. In Egypt, tourism was only about 6% of GDP in 2014, but its influence on other sectors is immense, particularly in agriculture, the country’s biggest employer. Jobs that indirectly depend on tourism amounted to around 1.5m in 2014. As a foreign exchange earner and attractor for investment, it is also hugely important. In 2013, about 6,000 businesses invested $26.4bn in the Egyptian tourism industry. It does not bode well for these optimists that the British Foreign Office advice on Egypt begins with the words “There is a high threat from terrorism” and goes on to advise against anything except “essential travel” in all the country outside the Nile valley. The response from potential tourists has been to stay away. Travel deals company Travelzoo reports advance bookings as “extremely low” and, for the moment, has abandoned publishing any Egypt deals.

In Tunisia, the picture is even worse: every seventh worker is dependent on tourism. Morakabati makes the point that everyone knows, and fears: “More unemployment and poverty will create the circumstances that the terrorist groups want. Recruitment for them will increase. It’s a vicious circle.”

There have been many low points on the road to this situation. After Bin Laden’s first foray into terror, he mainly attacked US military or diplomatic targets, but in November 1997 he ordered an attack on Egypt’s Deir al-Bahri archaeological site at Luxor. Six assailants entered the site and murdered 58 tourists and four Egyptians. The effect on Luxor was disastrous, devastating an economy that was heavily reliant on tourism. Any hopes of sustained recovery were repeatedly dashed by further attacks in Egypt.

This year has seen the worst carnage yet: a list of terrorist attacks so far makes for shocking reading, with fatal incidents happening almost daily. Most of these kill local people, not tourists, but there have been several large-scale atrocities. The attack on the Bardo museum in Tunis on 18 March left 19 tourists dead; that was followed by a further 38 murders at Sousse in June, then the loss of 224 passengers aboard the Metrojet flight to St Petersburg from Sharm el-Sheikh in October. After that attack, all flights to Sharm were cancelled for a week, with easyJet announcing on Tuesday that there would be no further flights until early January.


The beach at Sousse, Tunisia

The beach at Sousse, Tunisia, before the terrorist attack in June that killed 38. Photograph: Alamy

In the past, tourism has proven to be remarkably resilient. One highly placed insider in the British travel industry told me he expects 2016 will reveal a round of price cuts that will attract some people to book again. And not all the Middle East is badly affected. Jonny Bealby, the founder of adventure tour operator Wild Frontiers, points to areas where visitors have been snapping up tours. “In 2013, we took two groups to Iran, but next year we are planning 15 or 16 groups and the same number of tailor-made tours.” Countries such as Algeria and Georgia are also proving popular, as is the whole Central Asia region. Jordan, on the other hand, which ramped up security after the 2005 Amman bombings and has widespread public support for anti-terrorist measures, has remained unpopular.

The rapid, and sometimes quixotic, ways in which travel and tourism adapt to circumstances in regions afflicted by violence can throw up some strange anomalies. Back in 1877, when the US cavalry was still fighting its war against indigenous tribes, bands of fugitive Nez Perce Indians and the soldiers encountered vanguard groups of tourists visiting sites such as Yellowstone Park. In March 2011, when I reported on the return of tourism to northern Sri Lanka, I received a stern rebuke from John Mann MP complaining that encouraging tourism to areas that still suffered from death squads was “ignorant propaganda”. But the urge to explore and experience cannot be held back and the local people were delighted to welcome visitors after their long and agonising period of isolation.

It is this that makes me hopeful, at least in the long term. Tourists and travellers build up loyalties and friendships that can trump any amount of media negativity, even Foreign Office advice. These small human contacts help diminish the power of xenophobia and hatred. Bealby says: “What is important is that tourists and travellers gather the sort of knowledge that only comes from first-hand experience, not through the media.”

Nicholas Kirk, travel consultant at tour operators Tunisia First and Great Little Escapes, is clear about it: “The British don’t like restrictions. They are unwilling to be scared off. We have clients who will go for the entire winter to Tunisia, whatever the official advice. Others are just waiting for the restrictions to be lifted, purely to get travel insurance. They are regulars and feel an allegiance to the people and the place.”

Maat Barlow, a regular traveller from London who I met in Kyrgyzstan in 2014, has visited the Middle East, but would not now. “I’ve changed my destinations because of terrorism,” she says. “I’ll do Tibet or New Zealand, but not Morocco or Iran.”


Sightseers visiting Palmyra

Sightseers visiting Palmyra, before Isis embarked on its targeted destruction of the ancient city’s ruins. Photograph: Alamy

For most people, however, a little adventure is welcome as long as risks are carefully considered. Linda and Mark Grenyer, both lawyers from Yorkshire, have travelled a lot and were in Egypt in late October. “We felt perfectly safe all the time,” says Linda. “But it was very quiet - even at the Pyramids.” They would not, however, consider Jerusalem at the moment. “The violence just seems too random. We always organise trips through a good travel agent and we would never go against FCO advice.”

My own experience of Syria was in calmer times, late 2009, just over a year before government troops opened fire on protesters in Damascus, triggering the civil war. I was in Aleppo one chilly Sunday morning, wondering what to do with my day. I decided I would celebrate the city’s diversity by visiting every available house of worship. I walked through the souk first, skipping past the barrow boy who called out: “Antelope-skin scarf for the woman you love? Or silk for the mistress?” And finally, as I hurried away: “Make it polyester for the wife! I’ll throw in free divorce papers!”

The banter and good humour lasted all day. I sat through services at the Armenian, Syriac, Maronite and Latin churches alongside my Muslim guide. “Why not? Jesus is our prophet too.” Then we joined pilgrims at the Shi’ite shrine of Mashhad al-Hussain. An Iranian woman showed me how to tap my head on the baked tablet of earth from Kerbala in Iraq. A severe-looking old whitebeard wanted to discuss football. In the distance, we could hear the sound of church bells mingling with the cry of the muezzin at the Great Mosque, our next stop.

Later, I ambled back through the newer parts of town, marvelling at the juxtaposition of frou-frou lingerie shops, spice emporiums and sellers of holy books. It seemed to me that there was nowhere quite like Syria for breadth and depth of cultural experience in such a short space of time.

Memories such as these make me optimistic that one day these wonderful places will be sufficiently peaceful for normal human interaction between strangers from different cultures to happen again.

Visiting the Middle East and North Africa: destinations for intrepid travellers


The oasis township of Taghit in Algeria.

The oasis township of Taghit in Algeria. Photograph: Alamy

1. Algeria

Violence and tragedy are no strangers to Algeria, but things have quietened down considerably in recent years, and travellers and tour groups are visiting. Highlights are the Casbah in Algiers, the oases of Taghit and Béni Abbès, and Unesco sites such as Djémila and Tipasa.

2. Iran

A diverse and fascinating country, filled with many treasures for the visitor. Persepolis is the big must-see draw: the ancient capital of Darius and Xerxes is incredibly well-preserved. Isfahan is likewise unmissable, but it is the less well-known and obscure sites that can really bring a sense of adventure. Try Takht-e Soleyman and Hamedan in the east, or explore the Elburz mountains on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea. Some analysts believe that, with political stability, Iran could rival, even replace, Egypt as the Islamic world’s most visited country.


The gilded domes of Samarkand in Uzbekistan

The gilded domes of Samarkand in Uzbekistan – one of the great sights of Central Asia. Photograph: Alamy

3. Central Asia

This vast area of the Islamic world also contains some of its greatest highlights: Samarkand’s blue domes, Bukhara’s maze-like old town and Khiva’s fortress walls – and that is just in Uzbekistan. Further east, Kyrgyzstan is gathering a reputation for wilderness experiences, with the highest percentage of mountainous terrain of any country on earth. It also has a rather wonderful and well-organised system of homestays.


4. Oman

The south-east corner of Arabia has long stood apart from the trials and tribulations of its neighbours. Oman is about the same size as Poland and has some breathtaking scenery: Jebel Shams is the most frequently visited, but there are many other mountain areas that only occasionally see a foreign tourist, especially down in remote Dhofar province.


Water taxis ply their trade on Dubai Creek.

Water taxis ply their trade on Dubai Creek. Photograph: Alamy

5. Dubai

The Disneyland of Arabia may be its reputation, but Dubai does possess a real underbelly for the traveller who is not interested in buying another diamond-encrusted watch in another shopping mall. Get down to the waterfront and explore the markets, criss-crossing the Creek by simple water taxis. Great fun, especially at night.

6. Jordan

There is plenty of truth in the Jordanian complaint that it is a quiet country surrounded by noisy neighbours. The per capita income is high and it has somehow managed to absorb massive populations of refugees without drama. Highlights are the incomparable rose-red city of Petra, the Dead Sea, the fortress-cum-caravanserai of Qusayr Amra and various desert adventure activities.

To check the latest Foreign & Commonwealth Office advice for these and any other countries, go to

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This article was written by Kevin Rushby from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.