It’s more than a year since the Arab Spring – the uprisings that rocked north Africa and the Middle East – and travel is down (and in some places, out). Without doubt, the events have negatively affected tourism in that part of the world.
The worst-hit is Syria, an astonishing destination that offers archaeology by the bucket load: the Roman ruins of Palmyra, the Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers, and the city of Alleppo, home to the world’s best bazaar. Syria was never crowded, but did have a growing travel industry. But with its near-civil war, no longer.
“Syria’s out, and for good reason,“ says David McGuinness of Travel the Unknown. “The problems are also affecting neighbouring countries. I’m hearing that Jordan is down 50 per cent and, though Turkey is not affected (it might be a beneficiary), people are nervous about Eastern Turkey.”
Tunisia: options and optimism
The first countries into the Arab Spring were Tunisia and Egypt, which are also the top two tourist destinations in the Arab world. The former, in particular, has largely recovered and is being boosted by keen prices.
“Tunisia has always offered great value for money, and the exchange rate is good for British visitors, with £1 buying over two Tunisian Dinars,” says Wahida Jaiet, UK director of the Tunisian National Tourist Office.
He hopes to encourage Brits to, “experience the optimism of the new Tunisia, with great value packages available. There are more options for individual travel to our dars and boutique hotels in the south.”
So the Arab Spring has offered Tunisia the chance to promote the more cultural side of the country. Hopes are pinned on this year’s Tunisian-shot film, Black Gold, starring Antonio Banderas, adding to Tunisia’s great movie attraction of Matmata (home to Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year).
Similarly, Oman and Lebanon remain mostly unaffected by the Arab Spring.
Nile cruises without the crush
Egypt’s tourist office trumpets the fact that over a million British holidaymakers visited in 2011; we are the second most popular tourist nationality, below Russia and above Germany. Even so, that figure still represents a post-Spring fall in British travellers of 23 per cent.
North African specialist Amelia Stewart of Original Travel argues that the Arab Spring can add value to a holiday in the region. “I’m supporting the Arab Spring and from a consumer perspective, there’s no time like now to travel there,” she says.
“It’s a huge country and you can travel around easily. You can see the Pyramids and Luxor in isolation. You probably won’t get this opportunity again.”
The Egyptian people recognise the value of tourism, so good travel guides abound. With regard to the unrest, Stewart says that it’s a bit like being put off by travel to the UK after last August’s riots.
Still, Egypt is hurting. Akin Koc of Anatolian Sky Holidays, which runs holidays in Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, says that classical tourism has almost disappeared since the Arab Spring last year. “Nile cruises and Cairo holidays have ground to a halt since the uprisings began,” says Koc.
“People are simply too frightened to go to places with any kind of proximity to Tahrir Square and the associations that it brings. The fear of the possibility of unrest is not as strong in Red Sea resorts like Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada, which haven’t been anywhere near as badly affected, but numbers are still considerably down in comparison to previous years.”
Stewart says Jordan has been “barely affected” by the depredations of the Arab Spring but, again, tourist numbers are nevertheless down. “This means you’ll have great access to sites such as Petra,” says Stewart. But Libya, she adds, is “not ready for tourism”.
A spokesman for the Foreign Office urges a “common sense approach” and a visit to its website. But, says Stewart, don’t reject the Arab Spring countries out of hand. “Take the warnings into account but if you do go, you’ll be seeing these places in a historic moment.”