Revolts hit Mideast tourism

February 02, 2013 - 3:04:59 am

An aerial view of Atlantis Hotel and The Palm Jumeirah in Dubai.

DUBAI: The revolts that began in Tunisia at the end of 2010 and spread across the Middle East and North Africa had a devastating impact on tourism, but not everyone in the region lost out. While recovery from the turmoil has been at best tentative, at worst non-existent, places where the Arab Spring has not reached have been unexpected beneficiaries.

The smattering of tourists at the pyramids outside Cairo is almost outnumbered these days by souvenir sellers as a continuing political crisis overshadows Egypt’s new democracy.

Further east, meanwhile, the lobbies of the grandiose Atlantis resort on Dubai’s artificially created Palm archipelago are packed with visitors. Worries over possible militant attacks or a regional conflict involving Iran deter some, particularly Americans, but many others say they feel secure in Dubai in a way they would not elsewhere in the region.

“It’s wonderful and it feels very safe,” said John Macleanan, 69, a retired engineer from Australia’s Sunshine Coast visiting Dubai for the first time. “I could live here, although I don’t know that I could afford the accommodation.”

Even as visitors abandoned much of the Middle East in 2011, dealing a severe blow to countries like Egypt, 10 percent more of them headed for Dubai . The emirate reported more than five million visitors in the first half of 2012, the latest figures show.

As conflict broke out in Libya and Syria in 2011, fledgling tourism industries there were all but wiped out. Tourist visits to Bahrain have almost dried up, pushing Gulf Air to the brink of bankruptcy.

In Tunisia, a marketing campaign targeting European holidaymakers in particular resulted in a 30 percent rise in the number of visitors in 2012 compared to the previous year, with almost six million arriving. But that remains 10 percent below the figure for 2010.

Abu Dhabi saw its visitor numbers top two million for the first time in 2011 and hopes they will have increased by another 10 percent in 2012. Saudi Arabia reported a big increase in visitor numbers in 2012, mainly religious tourists and pilgrims. Last year, Saudi officials said they expected some 18 million people to pass through the country, many on pilgrimage to Makkah.

Egypt, meanwhile, has been perhaps the hardest hit. Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou said the number of visitors rose 17 percent in 2012 — but remains 22 percent below pre-revolutionary levels. 

Increasingly, visitors fly into Sharm El Sheikh directly or often on entirely self-contained package holidays. Museums and other attractions in central Cairo are left all but deserted and even those who visit the pyramids or Valley of the Kings near Luxor do so on fleeting coach trips.

Giza postcard seller Nasser Roby, 39, says he has been forced to cut back from three to two meals a day. “It is good that we got rid of the old government,” he said. “But life has become very difficult.” Reuters