One year on after the Arab Spring and the Middle East is a different place. Revolutions in Eqypt, Libya and Tunisia have ushered in an era of hope for democracy, development and human rights.
However these revolutions have also come at a price with the tourism industry across the Arab world hit hard by the unrest sweeping the region.
Tourism has been a vital contributor to several Middle Eastern economies. In Jordan, for example, tourism accounts for 10 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), while in Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon, the sector accounts for seven per cent, 11 per cent and 9.7 per cent respectively.
The Middle East has traditionally been perceived as a volatile and unstable region and has had to campaign hard over the years to attract tourists.
Now, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, countries must look even harder into ways of bringing tourist dollars back to their economies.
According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), political instability has prompted a 13 per cent drop in arrivals to North Africa and an 11 per cent fall in the Middle East.
Other Arab countries that witnessed uprisings have also suffered from plummeting tourism numbers while the unrest has had a knock-on effect as well: Jordan, though not affected by unrest, was perceived unsafe in the eyes of tourists due to the instability in neighbouring countries.
According to STR Global Report, the Levant region has faced a decline in demand in the main cities such as Beirut (by 12.2 per cent) and Amman (6.8 per cent).
It resulted in Revenue per Available Room (RevPar) declines of 22.2 per cent and 9.2 per cent in Beirut and Amman respectively, as a result of the unrest in Syria and Egypt.
The reality is that until the dust settles in those countries witnessing political and social unrest, tourists will travel somewhere else.
The Arab Spring has therefore given way to a shift in visitor demand from traditionally popular Middle East destinations such as Beirut and Amman to hot spots in the Arabian Gulf, which has seen an increase in demand of 13.2 per cent.
Also, with many tourists who come to the Middle East taking in more than one destination at a time, unaffected countries such as Jordan have suffered from the flurry of cancellations from travel agents.
The Jordan Tourism Board’s acting managing director Dr Abd Al-Razzaq Arabiyat told TTN that that several travellers who had booked two-country trips such as Syria- Jordan or Egypt-Jordan cancelled their trips entirely, rather than travel to Jordan alone.
Following the unrest, Middle East nations are now looking at ways to change the general perception of fear among international tourists.
However if one looks back into the history of wars and their aftermath in relation to tourism, there is reason for hope: in Germany, for instance, the Berlin Wall, which came crumbling down during the reunification, subsequently became a prime attraction for tourists visiting the country.
Perhaps Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, Tahrir Square in Egypt and even the cities of Tripoli and Benghazi might indeed become new tourism landmarks and destinations and help revive their tourism fortunes.
Tahrir Square in Egypt may well be on its way to becoming the country’s new tourism landmark
Thus, it is of vital importance to find creative ways to market these destinations abroad and remove the stigma of instability they now associated with.
Egypt and Tunisia have already began adopting such strategies with a new tagline for Egypt reading, ‘Welcome to the country of peaceful revolution’, despite the fact that the nation’s peaceful uprising was shattered by bloody suppression.
Also, the reality remains that most tourists continue to look at the Middle East as one destination as opposed to separate countries – and the Western media plays a pivotal role in perpetuating this misconception.
Changing this perception remains a major challenge.
There is no doubt that Middle East offers some of the world’s best tourism attractions, with its magnificent history, ancient civilizations and a culture of hospitality that distinguishes itself from other destinations.
In order for tourism to survive, it is crucial that countries in the Middle East are seen as individual nations by the international tourist, as opposed to one homogenous market.
However, despite the unrest, there is good news. STR Global states that despite the upheaval, major operators are continuing to push ahead with their plans for the Middle East and as of November last year there were a total of 494 hotels totalling133,705 rooms under development for the Middle East and Africa (Mena) region.
As the industry looks at new ways to draw tourists back again, it might be worth looking at travel writer Simon Calder’s pitch for tourism in the Middle East.
In an article in The Independent, the respected UK journalist said it could be ideal to travel to post-Arab Spring countries such as Tunisia for example, “convincing yourself that you are returning a favour to the country that did the world a favour, and making a personal contribution to a prosperous New Year”.