Post-Arab Spring Travel And Tourism In The Middle East: A Country-By-Country Look

  @MarkJohansonIBT on June 01 2012 11:03 AM
Egypt Tourist Sites Reopened
Tourists ride horses in front of the Great Giza pyramids. As tourists begin to return to Egypt and Tunisia following the receding anti-government protests, UNWTO has praised efforts made by respective governments to restore tourism. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

It has been 18 months since the Arab Spring swept through the Middle East, and, while some nations have emerged with a renewed spirit, others have plunged into daily violence.

The wave of protests that galvanized many in the region resulted in a sharp drop in tourism to countries at the center of the turmoil. Vital to the economy of nations like Tunisia and Egypt, tourist numbers plummeted by up to one-third at a loss of billions of dollars.

According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), international tourist arrivals in the Middle East declined by 8.4 percent to 54.8 million in 2011 after growing nearly 15 percent the year before. The numbers would have fallen even further if safe destinations like the United Arab Emirates hadn't snatched up the diverted tourists.

Focusing on popular pre-Arab Spring tourist destinations, here's a country-by-country look at travel and tourism in the Middle East as it stands now.

Bahrain

Arab Spring effect: Residents of the tiny island nation of Bahrain, a vital U.S. ally in the region, launched a wave of protests alleging both discrimination and disenfranchisement by the Sunni monarchy, which responded with nearly two months of martial law in March 2011. At least 50 people have died, and sporadic protests continue in 2012.

Bahrain's tourism industry was hit hard in 2011, with occupancy rates at hotels crashing almost 40 percent. Occupancy rates in 2012 are back on track with hotels in the Gulf kingdom's capital, Manama, reporting a 112 percent rise over last year's figures.

Should you visit? Yes, but be prepared for delays and uncertainty.

Egypt

Arab Spring effect: Protesters gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square demanding the removal of President Hosni Mubarak in January 2011. Their revolution was successful, but the reforms have been incredibly sluggish and protests, often violent, continue. Troubling still, security concerns remain after several groups of foreign tourists were kidnapped at gunpoint in the Sinai Peninsula in February and again in May 2012.

Tourism, one of Egypt's largest industries, plummeted in 2011 by more than one-third over the previous year. Ongoing protests have cast a dark shadow on the country, though several cruise liners have returned in 2012.

Should you visit? Yes, but be prepared for delays and uncertainty.

Jordan

Arab Spring effect: Protests in Jordan began in January 2011 and continued throughout the year, even after King Abdullah II made cabinet changes. Relatively speaking, the protests in Jordan were less violent than elsewhere in the region.

Tourism took a blow in 2011, costing the country an estimated $1 billion, despite the fact that nearly all tour operators remained open for business.

Should you visit? Absolutely

Lebanon

Arab Spring effect: With pressure from Hezbollah, which the U.S. government has designated as a terrorist organization, members of the government resigned in early 2011, and a new government was formed in June. Several large-scale demonstrations and strikes ensued, and some were violent.

Lebanon's tourism industry was booming before the Arab Spring, with Beirut gaining popularity as a trendy destination. Demonstrations, strikes, brutal violence in neighboring Syria and travel warnings from countries such as the U.S. and Canada changed that. By mid-2011, Lebanon lost its luster as a popular destination in the Middle East, with tourist numbers dropping by approximately 25 percent over the previous year.

Should you visit? Maybe, but avoid areas near the Israeli and Syrian borders.

Libya

Arab Spring effect: Protests against Libya's strongman for over 40 years, Moammar Gadhafi, quickly led to civil war. Rebel forces killed Gadhafi in October, but the oil rich North African nation has been mired by instability ever since with rebel militias refusing to disarm, often taking brutal revenge against suspected regime supporters.

All cruise ships and many airlines have stopped services to Tripoli, and officials have not issued tourist visas to the nation for months. The tourism industry, as it stands, is virtually nonexistent.

Should you visit? Absolutely not

Morocco

Arab Spring effect: Capitalizing on the fervor of the region, Moroccans rallied on February 20, 2011, calling on King Mohammed VI to give up power. The King made concessions and introduced a new constitution, but protests continue to this day.

Morocco is an oddity in the region, because its tourism numbers actually rose by 4 percent during the Arab Spring. The nation has a long history of hosting foreign travelers, and most cruise lines and tours have stayed open for business during the protests.

Should you visit? Yes, but be prepared for delays and some uncertainty.

Oman

Arab Spring effect: Several demonstrations took place in early 2011, as protesters demanded reforms and a better standard of living. Sultan Qaboos bin Said responded by hiking the minimum wage and shuffling the cabinet, among other reforms. For the most part, he quenched the uprising, and Oman skirted the Arab Spring.

Oman expects two million foreign tourists in 2012 after it made tourism promotion a priority in 2011. Its Arabian Peninsula neighbors have used their oil riches to erect skyscrapers, convention centers and megamalls, but Oman is planting gardens, building opera houses and turning the capital city, Muscat, into a cultural playground for travelers. With new cruise ship arrivals and private yachts prowling the coastline, it's becoming easier to mistake the Gulf of Oman for the Mediterranean Sea.

Should you visit? Absolutely

Syria

Arab Spring effect: What began as a wave of peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad in January 2011 has turned into a violent struggle and near civil war with over 9,000 dead. The military has responded to protests with an all-out assault on the opposition, and the violence shows no signs of receding.

Syria saw a notable rise in tourism before the Arab Spring, but that's all but over now. The U.S. Embassy in Damascus closed in February 2012, and most Western countries have issued travel warnings for the nation.

Should you visit? Absolutely not

Tunisia

Arab Spring effect: Though it's called the Arab Spring, the movement traces its roots to December 2010, when violent protests against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali forced him to flee the country. A new government took office in December 2011, and, although no tourists have been directly affected, sporadic demonstrations and protests continue.

Tourism arrivals in Tunisia dropped by a third in 2011, with heavy losses in European arrivals. Consequently, the government has launched a major tourism campaign in select European capitals to entice visitors back. The government also hopes to lure back cruise ships such as Costa and Oceania, who called on Tunisia before the upheaval.

Should you visit? Yes, but be prepared for an element of uncertainty.

*** For the purposes of this list, Algeria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, Mauritania and Western Sahara have been omitted, because they were not seen as tourist destinations before the Arab Spring.

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