And all thanks to 9/11
Inter-Arab tourism is setting new records. Arabs even prefer to travel to the Far East - anywhere but the West.
If there is anything that can drive Egyptian TV producers crazy, it's a decision by the Egyptian broadcasting authority to broadcast their series in the summer. And if there is anything that makes the film producers there angry, it's a decision by the Egyptian film council to screen their films during Ramadan, because in the summer, most Egyptians don't sit at home watching TV, and during Ramadan nobody goes to the cinema. Anyone who wants to see new local films in Egyptian movie theaters should come to Cairo now, particularly if they are a resident of one of the Gulf states, where the temperature these days reaches almost 50 degrees centigrade.
Not only are new films coming out now, but summer is the festival season in Arab countries, or at least in those countries where tourism represents a considerable percentage of national income, such as Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, some of the Gulf states, Tunisia and Morocco. A quick glance at the events scheduled in some of the Arab countries reveals, for example, that this summer there will be at least three important music festivals in Lebanon, in which famous international artists will appear, children's festivals in Dubai, a film festival in Tunisia and an Arab song festival in Jerash, Jordan.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Gulf state newspapers are presently publishing information for the public not only about the best ways to prepare their cars for long trips in the hot weather, but also how to drive with the children on these trips. These articles recommend not filling the cars with candies that melt, because the children will dirty the car and thus make their parents angry, and this can lead to dangerous results when traveling long distances in the regional heat.
If something good has happened in the Arab countries as a result of the attacks of 9/11, it is the flourishing of local tourism. According to the statistics of the World Tourism Organization, Lebanon has registered an increase of about 27 percent in the number of tourists since 2000. It had the best of both worlds: both Israeli withdrawal and an influx of Arab tourism after the attacks in the United States. About 35 million tourists visited the entire Middle East last year, not including tourists to Israel and to North African countries. This is a record number: Even in 1994, when the peace treaty was signed between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Israel and Jordan, only about 12 million tourists visited the region.
These statistics make a great impression, but they require careful examination. The Syrian Interior Ministry, for example, lists everyone who enters through the border crossings as tourists, including the crossings between Lebanon and Syria. But every day thousands of people who pass through these crossings come only to trade, and return home the same day; they do not use hotels or other tourist services.
In Egypt it is difficult to find out how many of the tourists come from Arab countries and how many from European countries. The numbers of tourists registered in Jordan do not distinguish between relatives or people who come to study and "real" tourists. Incidentally, the major source of tourism to Jordan is Israel, since Jordan has in recent years become a preferred destination for Israeli Arabs, who not only benefit from good prices, but also save themselves humiliating checks at Israeli sites.
Tourism is an industry to which the oil-rich countries have also been turning in recent years, in order to find a way to diversify their sources of income. Some, such as the United Arab Emirates, are already operating with great success in the field; the UAE has become a top country for services and commerce. Not only can one find huge hotels with thousands of rooms along the beach in the UAE, but also the widest range of entertainment, including camel and horse racing, marine vacations, jeep tours and shopping, since Dubai has the largest free-trade market in the Middle East, tax free and duty free.
The proximity of the UAE to Iran also makes it a popular destination among Iranian tourists, most of whom come to make wholesale purchases of merchandise, which they export to Pakistan and lately to Afghanistan, as well. Shopping tourism from Russia is no less important an industry, to the point where in most of the shops in the Dubai malls one can find the signs familiar to Israelis: "Russian spoken here."
The huge increase in tourism in the Gulf states has also brought about a change in the air transport industry. In the UAE, for example, there are two airlines that run "no frills" flights at significant discounts of about 40 to 60 percent of regular prices, with additional countries set to expand this system of transportation.
According to the statistics of tourist organizations, tourism in the Arab countries registered an increase of 9.1 percent last year, the highest increase of all the industries in the region. But even after this high rate of growth, tourism in the Middle East constitutes only 3.4 percent of international tourism. The reason for that is that tourism from countries outside the region has not yet picked up speed. Because, while Arab tourists know exactly where the calm places are and where one can and cannot travel so as not to meet up with a stray bullet or a booby-trapped car, the same is not true of tourists from outside the region.
Intifada in Palestine, war in Iraq or an attack in Cairo, and all the external tourism to Arab countries stops, sometimes for years, as happened to Egypt for almost a decade during the 1990s, and sometimes only for a few weeks.
These sharp transitions in the number of entries into the region by tourists have an immediate affect on the economy. According to statistics of the Arab Labor Organization, the Arab tourist industry directly employs about 1,400,000 workers, who constitute about 3.2 percent of the entire work force in Arab countries, and at least 4 million workers who are affected by the industry indirectly. In countries such as Egypt, which must create about half a million new places of work each year in order to maintain the present rate of unemployment, any change in the industry means another tens of thousands of unemployed. This is why a huge effort is being made by Arab countries that do not have oil to expand investment in the tourism industry and to reduce the effect of political crises on tourism.
An example of that is Syria, which during the past two years has suffered from two serious crises: the cutoff of the oil pipeline from Iraq, which reduced by almost a third the number of barrels of oil that Syria can sell, and the activity of the Lebanese opposition, which led to the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon and significantly reduced the movement of tourists between the two countries. Yesterday there was an international tourism fair in Damascus, in which dozens of Middle Eastern firms participated. They were presented with the planned investments in the industry by Syria, including the construction of modern hotels, the renovation of old ones and the development of transportation and telecommunications networks to supply the needs of business tourism.
This year Syria expects a significant increase in the number of tourists from the Gulf states, but during the last five months it has lost almost 250,000 Lebanese tourists, who as a result of recent events, refrained from visiting. If before the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri the Lebanese arrived in Damascus every weekend on packed buses, now only isolated groups come.
Since 9/11, additional countries have joined the competition among Arab countries for the pocket of the Arab tourist. Instead of going to Europe and to the United States, Arab tourists are now turning to the countries of the Far East, and even to Africa. For example, Malaysia registered an increase of 50 percent in the number of Arab tourists, Thailand and Indonesia about 24 percent and South Africa 44 percent. The numbers are still relatively small, but this is already a new tourism trend, which is interested in scenery and in new cultural encounters, and if it develops into a fashion, it will build another layer of knowledge that until now was reserved for special groups of Arab businessmen.