Can Middle East tourism ever recover?
It was a wild night in the Yemeni port of Aden. At the first nightclub, we met a group of musicians who had finished their set and were drinking local beer –made in Arabia’s only brewery. They said we should all go to the Mövenpick hotel club. They promised a sensational evening.
When we arrived, a full Egyptian orchestra in tuxedos was already whipping up a storm of wailing and crashing for a Syrian bellydancer who was gyrating across the tables. The songs were all classics from the 1930s and 40s by singers such as Umm Kulthum, Sayed Darwish and Mohamed Fawzy, an urgent storm of melancholy and longing. I felt we had entered an orientalist’s paradise: the world of classic Egyptian cinema and Flaubert’s Cairo. No one mentioned the explosion in the car park a few weeks before. None of us noticed that we were witnessing the end of an era in the Arab world.
That was early 1993 and the bomb in the Mövenpick car park had been put there on 29 December 1992 by an obscure Afghan war veteran called Osama bin Laden. It was his first terror operation.
He had wanted to murder some US marines, targeting the Mövenpick and the nearby Gold Mohur hotel, but the two bombs instead killed one Austrian tourist and one local. At the time, the incident barely made the press and Bin Laden’s role was not known until much later, but you could say that, right from the start, western tourism and jihadist terrorism were fatally linked.
With Yemen in the midst of war, there are no tourists in Aden now, nor in Sana’a, the mountain city to the north whose ancient centre used to be on many people’s wishlists, along with other currently inaccessible World Heritage sites such asLibya’s Leptis Magna, Syria’s Palmyra (or what’s left of it) and the Afghan buddhas of Bamiyan. And if Sana’a, supposedly founded by Noah’s son Shem, is still largely intact, in terms of visitors it is dead. The hotels of the Old City, grand merchants’ tower houses converted in the 1990s, lie empty as do the astonishing samasir, the vast labyrinthine caravanserai, some of which had been converted to tourist-oriented craft workshops and markets. There are no visitors, not even the sort of occasional intrepid adventurer that used to come in the 18th century. Anyone who once depended on tourists for a living has moved on. There are stories of younger men heading off on the long road to Europe. No doubt others are feeling the lure of jihadist causes, particularly as that path brings weaponry, money and respect. The country is in the grip of a civil war that offers little likelihood of ending soon. An entire generation of travellers may never experience Yemen, missing out on a unique civilisation. Nor will the country gain what it deserves, and needs: friends and admirers in the outside world.
In Syria and Libya, the story is similar: an optimistic, and brief, surge in tourismbrought to a rapid demise by conflict. These were relatively small markets but, with 2015 proving to be an annus horribilis for terrorist attacks, there are serious concerns that the downward plunge is about to be repeated across the entire Middle East, dragging down mass tourist destinations such as Egypt, Morocco and Turkey. A multi-billion-dollar industry is teetering on the brink of collapse, a disaster that could leave millions jobless and faced with the grim choices of a hopeless existence, perilous emigration or violence. In Egypt alone, 1.3 million people directly depend on the tourism. Yeganeh Morakabati, who researches the subject of tourism and terrorism at Bournemouth University, puts it like this: “The tourist industry in the Middle East may have reached a tipping point. It doesn’t look good at all, certainly in the short term.”
Those gloomy words are backed up by eyewitness evidence. All across the region, even in areas untouched by violence, you can see empty hotels, lines of concrete boxes standing close to beaches, beauty spots and ancient cities. One recent visitor to Petra in Jordan told me he had the place to himself. Another returnee from Sinai, post-Russian Airbus bomb, mentions driving past the shells of unfinished hotels on the road between resorts. When asked why they weren’t open, the taxi driver’s reply was simple: “No tourists.” In Luxor one recent visitor asked about the hundreds of river boats all tied up and disused. “Tourism,” her guide declared gloomily, “Is the oxygen of Egypt.”
Most investors will never see anything back from those stalled ventures. Yassar al-Majali, head of the Jordan’s Hotel Association, admits to me that 10 hotels has closed in Petra, despite the government slashing electricity prices by half. “We need to work hard to attract new clients,” he says. “Maybe the Russians who used to go to Sharm el-Sheikh, the Chinese or Indians. If we don’t, there will be 10 more closing.”
In Tunisia, scene of two terrible tourist massacres this year, hotels have scraped through the season on local holidaymakers, but the foreigners are staying away and no one knows what the future holds. Even in Turkey, people are already experiencing a serious downturn. Alkan Sisli, a guide who I have travelled with around Şanliurfa in the east of the country, tells me most tours there have been cancelled. One of his favourite spots, the sixth-century monastery of Darul Zafaran near Mardin, has seen visitor numbers drop by 90% this year. Another young guide, Ossama Mahmoud, in Jordan, bemoans that his country is seen as unsafe, tainted by association with violent neighbours. “Thousands have already lost their jobs,” he says. “I used to do a tour every week; now I’d be lucky to get half that.”
The problem doesn’t stop with tours and hotels. In Egypt, tourism was only about 6% of GDP in 2014, but its influence on other sectors is immense, particularly in agriculture, the country’s biggest employer. Jobs that indirectly depend on tourism amounted to around 1.5m in 2014. As a foreign exchange earner and attractor for investment, it is also hugely important. In 2013, about 6,000 businesses invested $26.4bn in the Egyptian tourism industry. It does not bode well for these optimists that the British Foreign Office advice on Egypt begins with the words “There is a high threat from terrorism” and goes on to advise against anything except “essential travel” in all the country outside the Nile valley. The response from potential tourists has been to stay away. Travel deals company Travelzoo reports advance bookings as “extremely low” and, for the moment, has abandoned publishing any Egypt deals.
In Tunisia, the picture is even worse: every seventh worker is dependent on tourism. Morakabati makes the point that everyone knows, and fears: “More unemployment and poverty will create the circumstances that the terrorist groups want. Recruitment for them will increase. It’s a vicious circle.”
There have been many low points on the road to this situation. After Bin Laden’s first foray into terror, he mainly attacked US military or diplomatic targets, but in November 1997 he ordered an attack on Egypt’s Deir al-Bahri archaeological site at Luxor. Six assailants entered the site and murdered 58 tourists and four Egyptians. The effect on Luxor was disastrous, devastating an economy that was heavily reliant on tourism. Any hopes of sustained recovery were repeatedly dashed by further attacks in Egypt.
This year has seen the worst carnage yet: a list of terrorist attacks so far makes for shocking reading, with fatal incidents happening almost daily. Most of these kill local people, not tourists, but there have been several large-scale atrocities. The attack on the Bardo museum in Tunis on 18 March left 19 tourists dead; that was followed by a further 38 murders at Sousse in June, then the loss of 224 passengers aboard the Metrojet flight to St Petersburg from Sharm el-Sheikh in October. After that attack, all flights to Sharm were cancelled for a week, witheasyJet announcing on Tuesday that there would be no further flights until early January.