Demand up for Middle East destinations

The Louvre Abu Dhabi with the Abu Dhabi skyline in the background.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi with the Abu Dhabi skyline in the background. Photo Credit: Mohamed Somji/© Louvre Abu Dhabi

While Turkey's tourism industry is sure to face setbacks as a result of last week's decision by the Turkish government to stop issuing visas to U.S. travelers, the rest of the Middle East and North Africa is in the midst of a boomlet that operators in the region expect will continue into 2018.

"Americans are shifting the conversation from apprehension to understanding and are openly exploring destinations in the Middle East, where tourism is booming," stated Jamee Lubkemann, vice president at American Express Travel, which last month released a fall trends report showing that bookings for are up 150% for Beirut and 148% for Tel Aviv.

That is in line with what the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reported for the first half of 2017, during which tourism growth was strongest in the Middle East, up 9%, followed by Europe, up 8%, and Africa, up 8%, Asia and the Pacific, up 6%, and the Americas, up 3%.

Even though destinations throughout the Middle East and North Africa have been challenged by security threats and unrest over the past several years, destinations such as Egypt, Israel, Jordan and even the Palestinian territories and Iran are starting to attract greater interest from travelers.

According to the UNWTO, for the first half of the year, Palestine was the world's fastest-growing destination, having experienced a 57% jump in visitors between January and June.

The growing awareness and acceptance for traveling to and within Palestine prompted Sami Khoury, president of the Holy Land Incoming Tour Operators Association, to visit the U.S. last month in an effort to communicate to the travel trade the region's increasing tourism potential.

Following off-and-on periods of unrest between Israelis and Palestinians, "it has been very calm recently," said Khoury. And consequently, the association, which represents about 90% of Palestine's inbound travel industry, has seen a surge in demand.

Khoury acknowledged that most visitors to the Palestinian territories are still mostly faith-based travelers. But he said that, slowly, the culturally curious want to explore the region more as well, and religious travelers are looking for a greater diversity of products and experiences on the ground beyond just religious monuments and historical sites.

Thus, association members that are inbound operators are developing new experiences, such as incorporating more hiking and outdoor activities into their itineraries.

Itineraries that include Palestine are indelibly linked with travel to Israel and sometimes with Jordan, destinations that are all seeing growing interest. Khoury said he recognized that their continued growth was reliant on relative stability, something he said he is "cautiously optimistic" about.

Leigh Barnes, director of North America for the Intrepid Group, said the company was experiencing a 70% increase in bookings to the Middle East. "There's definitely an appetite to get out and explore that part of the world," he said.

G Adventures, too, has seen greater demand for the Middle East; it recorded 36% year-over-year growth in bookings in 2017, which prompted it to add a tour to Oman to its Middle East and North Africa destination portfolio for 2018.

Oman is "a trending destination," said Jeremy Brady, G Adventures' U.S. sales manager. He said the company's No. 1 destination last year was Morocco, which consistently ranks among its top three destinations. Moreover, Egypt, which had been limping along for years following the Arab Spring uprising in 2011, has climbed back into the top 10 destinations for G Adventures.

Abu Dhabi was the fastest-growing destination city in the Middle East and Africa, and the fourth-fastest-growing destination city worldwide, according to the 2017 Mastercard Global Destination Cities Index.

Saif Saeed Ghobash, director general for the United Arab Emirates' Department of Culture and Tourism,said, "With the recently announced launch of the much-anticipated Louvre Abu Dhabi and cultural exhibitions such as Hajj: Memories of a Journey, the capital's reputation as a destination of distinction continues to grow."

Abu Dhabi welcomed 4.4 million visitors in 2016, and it is on track to meet its target of hosting more than 4.9 million visitors in 2017.

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