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The biggest Arab tourist destinations make a comeback in growth

Notes from the Ministerial Forum organized by the UNWTO and Casa Árabe at Fitur 2018

January 26, 2018
As part of the International Tourism Trade Fair (FITUR) in Madrid, on January 18 Casa Árabe and the UNWTO organized a Ministerial Forum on “Strengthening the recovery of tourism in the Middle East and North Africa and supporting its growth.” This was the sixth edition (video of the event, in Spanish). The main leaders in the field of tourism policy from these countries analyzed current trends and prospects in the region’s tourism within the new context of strengthened growth in this industry. 

In 2017, tourism overall in the region experienced very positive results, consolidating the recovery that had begun at certain destinations in 2016 after a few difficult years in which the sector had been affected by political instability and a lack of security, as well the world economic crisis.

According to recent data from the World Tourism Organization, destinations in Mediterranean countries, including North Africa, as well as some in the Middle East, showed signs of extraordinary strength. In the countries of North Africa as a whole, international arrivals over the first ten months of 2017 increased by 13% (far above the worldwide growth in the industry, at 7%). In the Middle East, certain destinations made a major comeback, while others grew steadily, but the region’s figures slowed down overall because of the downturn in certain destinations, amounting to growth of 5% (however, this figure is quite positive compared with the negative data from 2016 at -2.6%).

Given the industry’s importance to certain economies in the region, tourism has become one of the main foundations supporting their expectations for growth. In recent years, policies have been promoted to seek diversification in tourism, the appeal of regional products and alliances with new international markets. The outcome of these strategies in tourism can be seen in the form of increases in the volume of international tourists in 2017. In particular, Egypt, Tunisia and Palestine made strong comebacks after the decreases in prior years, whereas other countries with an important tourism industry, like Morocco, Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman and Dubai, continue to record sustained growth. Among the most notable figures was the recovery in international tourist numbers in Egypt, with a 56% increase; Palestine, at 32.5%, and Jordan and Lebanon, with increases around 12%.

Bahrain’s Minister of Tourism, Zayed R. Alzayani, took part in the forum for the first time and highlighted that one of Bahrain’s most important priorities has precisely been the growth and strengthening of tourism through a strategy supported by three main foundations: giving Bahrain a new tourist identity of its own, increasing the country’s appeal, making it easier to enter the country and improving its hotel offerings. This strategy has allowed it to double the tourism industry’s contribution the national GDP. The goal is for the industry to grow exponentially while undergoing improvement in quality, as well. By doing this, the industry is on the right track and placing the focus on the development and diversification of its own products while coming up with new forms of tourism, as well.
Interview with Zayed R. Alzayani, Minister of Industry, Trade and Tourism of Bahrain

Traditionally, Egypt has been the main tourist destination in the region. In recent years, as of 2011, with spikes in 2015 and 2016, the tourism industry has been greatly affected by the political instability in the country and, with it, its brand perception and tourist image. However, the Egyptian Minister of Tourism, Hesham El Demeiry, emphasized that the industry underwent a significant recovery throughout 2017, achieving an increase of 56% in the number of tourists. The country has implemented a strategy based on several main focuses: remodeling its brand image, which, according to the Minister, “is the responsibility of all of the country’s authorities”; dividing travel into different segments, and diversifying tourism offerings.
Interview with Hesham El Demeiry, President of Egypt’s Tourism Authority
As for Jordan, the Director General of its Tourism Board, Abdel Razzaq Arabiyat says that the country’s tourism industry saw an increase of 11% in 2017, as a result of a new strategy based on improving infrastructures and accessibility by air, diversifying its tourism offerings, promoting tourism through e-marketing and creating alliances and relationships with third countries.  Furthermore, this new strategy targets “experience tourism,” based on interaction with local communities and access to the products they make, as well as “leisure tourism,” “adventure tourism” and “medical tourism.” In terms of improvements in air connections, the proper authorities are doing their best to attract new charter airlines, as well as low-cost airlines. At the same time, this strategy focuses on establishing new alliances with countries like China and the Gulf nations in order to create and promote combined packages.

According to Lebanon’s Minister of Tourism, Avedis Guidanian, in terms of the volume of tourists who came to Lebanon in 2017, that year was the country’s second best for tourism in the last decade, at 1.9 million tourists, surpassed only in 2010, when there were 2.17 million. This increase has taken place as a result of the tourism strategy put in motion in 2016, though it has also occurred in response to the country’s political stability, which has allowed for steady growth in tourism compared with prior years. This strategy has been coupled with a major information and promotion campaign, placing a special emphasis on Lebanese nationals living abroad, in an attempt to arouse a feeling of nostalgia in them towards Lebanon. Tourism diversification is also a main objective, for both foreign and domestic tourists. On the one hand, Lebanon is attempting to promote different facets of tourism, including its night life and religious tourism. At the same time, it is trying to create new alliances with international markets by forming tourist packages which combine visits to several countries, offering religious tourism along with adventure and leisure.

Palestine is characterized by facing very different challenges in tourism compared with the other countries. According to the Palestinian Minister of Tourism, Rula Ma’ayah, the main barrier that Palestine must deal with is the Israeli occupation, which keeps it from controlling its own borders or media, as well as a large portion of its own infrastructures.

Despite all this, the country is gradually receiving more tourists, mainly in the form of religious tourism. Therefore, the country’s goal is to stand out from others and promote its own identity as a “unique country.” To achieve this, it must not only promote religious tourism, but also highlight many other attractions belonging to the country, to draw in different population segments. The diversification of tourism in Palestine revolves around, firstly, younger sectors of the population, by promoting community and adventure tourism, based on the diversity of nature in the country. Secondly, Palestine’s tourism strategy strives to form alliances with other international markets that are “novel,” including Eastern Europe (especially Romania) and Asia (above all, China, Japan and India). One of the major challenges for Palestine is managing to develop and promote its own tour operators as a way to get the profits from tourism to be invested directly back into the country’s economy.
Interview with Rula Ma’ayah, the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities of Palestine
United Arab Emirates
According to Mohamed Al Muhairi, Undersecretary of Tourism at the Ministry of the Economy of the  United Arab Emirates (UAE), in recent years there have been very significant increases in the country’s tourism industry. In 2016, the final number of visitors whose destination was the UAE amounted to nearly 24 million. The UAE considers tourism an essential industry to reduce its economy’s dependence on hydrocarbons. As a result, its tourism strategy includes promoting and increasing tourism in all of the Emirates: with a tourism strategy that, while jointly planned, is also able to preserve the characteristic features which makes each place unique. Moreover, the country’s tourism agenda attempts to deal with the sustainability of growth, supported by new e-marketing tools.
Interview with Mohamed Al Muhairi, Undersecretary of Tourism, of the United Arab Emirates Ministry of the Economy

Video of the event:  
Strengthening Tourism’s Recovery in the MENA Region and Supporting Its Growth (in Spanish)
The biggest Arab tourist destinations make a comeback in growth