Thursday, January 06, 2011

Vanquish visas and they will come

European tourists visiting the Umayyad mosque in Damascus

Commentary - Executive magazine

Over the past decade the Middle East has shaken off its 'danger zone' reputation of being a place where only the fool hardiest of holiday makers would plan a holiday. Since 2000, the number of tourists visiting the region (excluding Turkey and Israel) has more than doubled, from 24.9 million to over 53 million. And while 2009 saw a slump in international tourist arrivals, down 5 percent, the region was only behind North-East Asia globally in the rise in tourists in 2010, up 16.1 percent, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

Perceived heightened stability, investment, infrastructure development and marketing campaigns have all contributed to the rise of tourism in places other than long-term favorites Egypt, Turkey and the Holy Land.

The rise has partly been fueled by wary Westerners warming to the Middle East as an attractive vacation destination, after being swayed by the flurry of advertising campaigns and travel articles extolling old Damascus' charms, Dubai's palatial hotels and Beirut's infamous “phoenix rising from the ashes” reputation. However, inter-regional tourism has been a key driver for the sector and has corresponded with the emergence of low cost air carriers and the aggressive expansion of Middle Eastern airlines in general.

The rise in tourism has also dove tailed with a resurgent middle class with the desire and enough money to take a trip within the region, but not quite enough cash to splurge on a family holiday to Europe or America. Syria has become a regional poster child in this regard, with its tourism sector exploding since the economy was opened up at the beginning of this century, with visitor numbers surging from two million in 2004 to a record 8.5 million in 2010. What is notable is that the majority of tourists are from the Gulf, with 2.9 million Arabs visiting in 2010, compared to 1.35 million tourists from other, primarily European, countries.

It has been the increased openness of countries that has really encouraged the inter-regional tourism boom, with Damascus scrapping visas for Iranians and Turks, and Turkey last year (2010) abolishing visas for Syrians and Lebanese. Once the regulations changed, there was a 117 percent rise in Iranian visitors to Syria, while the Turkish-Syrian agreement encouraged 482,000 Syrian holiday makers to stream into Turkey, a 113 percent increase, and a 170 percent rise in Turks heading to its southern neighbor. This sensible bi-lateral move resulted in the highest rise in visitors between two countries in the world in 2010.

Meanwhile, Ankara's decision led to 73 percent more Lebanese visiting Turkey than in 2009, and easier visas and marketing campaigns led to 74 percent more tourists from the UAE, a 60 percent rise from Iran and a 47 percent increase from Saudi Arabia. What is curious is that while Arab and Iranian tourist number surged, Ankara's strained relations with Tel Aviv resulted in a 41 percent drop in Israeli tourists, to 80,000 visitors.

That's not much of a surprise though, as politics and outbreaks of violence frequently cause the region's tourism figures to yo-yo from one year to the next. But with all the development and infrastructure investment underway – from airport expansion in the Levant to the colossal aviation hubs in the UAE and Qatar, to the resorts and hotels being built – the region is on track to being a top global travel and tourism destination. Indeed, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the Middle East's tourist and travel economy is forecast to rise 40 percent by 2020 from the current $173 billion to $430 billion.

What should be under debate is the scale and feasibility of tourism projects and development – mass tourism versus more sustainable tourism that is not primarily seasonal, has negative social ramifications or ravages the environment. Now is the time for the public and private sectors to plan ahead.

The easing up of borders and visa formalities should expand further to bolster regional travel for Middle Eastern citizens and foreigners; as Turkey and Syria have demonstrated, scrapping visas makes visitor figures jump. After all, tourists that have to go through the whole rigmarole of applying for a visa and then coughing up $50 may be discouraged from visiting, but if you let them in for free, tourists will spend, spend, spend. In Syria's case, $2 billion more in tourism revenues in 2010 than the year before.

PAUL COCHRANE is the Middle East correspondent for International News Services

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