Last weekend I was invited to speak at Destinations, an annual consumer-facing travel show in London. My subject was “Reshaping Middle East tourism” and, gratifyingly, if rather amazingly, something like 100 people came to listen – a vote of confidence in the idea of going on holiday to the Middle East, at a time when doom and gloom is widespread.
I talked about guidebooks, about how tours work and other things – but here is the bit where I tried to explain, for a general audience, what’s happening in the Middle East at the moment, and how both we, as consumers, and the travel industry as a whole could respond to it.
It’s mostly as I spoke it, polished up just a little. Note: I chose not to discuss Israel, partly because it has its own tourism context focused on VFR and Christian pilgrimage, but mostly because it is generally well insulated from the effects of political upheavals elsewhere.
…So how does all this relate to what’s going on in the Middle East at the moment – what’s been called the ‘Arab Spring’?
First of all, the ‘Arab Spring’ is a misnomer – implies a single revolutionary event – which, of course, the news media love – in fact the whole region is going through profound social and political change – a transformation, which will take years…
What is it about? Day by day, in contrast to what news media might say, my sense is it’s not driven by democracy or human rights or equality, or any of those grand ideals. If I had to sum it up, it’s about ACCOUNTABILITY.
People from Morocco to Tunisia to Egypt to Saudi Arabia to Bahrain to Oman have been ruled by leaders – sheikhs, presidents, monarchs – who are effectively unaccountable (not in every case: traditional systems of accountability do exist, but even they are creaking under pressure).
Large swathes of those people are increasingly fed up with it.
I was in Kuwait recently, where there have been large demonstrations by the political opposition and others, challenging the status quo – someone there clarified it for me – he said people are asking for CLEAR REGULATORY AUTHORITY. How boring is that? Not democracy, not equality, not all that grand stuff, but simply accountable regulation. People don’t want to be ruled by whim or decree anymore.
That’s a revolution. It’s also an uprising against authority. But it is not a single, one-off event.
Building the kind of nation to replace the hideously invasive, militarised police state Egypt suffered under Mubarak, or the psychopathic repression inflicted on Syria by the Assad regime, or even the widespread corruption in Jordan, with a balanced constitution where the rule of law is respected, where accountable politicians debate, and where there is transparency in government allied with freedom of expression – that takes years. Generations.
It is not one news story, after which everything goes back to ‘normal’ – despite whatever Egypt’s tourism minister might wishfully think.
Down the tubes
Here’s a thought. Tourism does very well under dictatorships. The global travel industry loves stability even more than the White House does. Tourism in Egypt boomed under Mubarak, when developments JUST GOT BUILT and when nobody asked too many questions (because if you did you could end up in the Nile wearing concrete underpants). Ben Ali, Tunisia’s tinpot dictator who was the first to fall, back in 2011, oversaw his country’s tourism industry develop from nothing, even while his police forces were pulling out people’s fingernails in the torture cells under Tunis.
Even Assad in Syria – I remember 2006 and 07, when there seemed to be a genuine window for reform – I wrote several articles on the tourism opportunities opening up in a freer Syria…
This is not to condemn anybody in travel for complicity with dictatorship, passive or otherwise. None of us foresaw the uprisings. Nobody did – not journalists, not analysts, not the people themselves.
But now, today, instability means Middle East tourism – particularly in Egypt – is down the tubes.
In Egypt in 2010, 15 million tourists brought in £7 billion in revenue.
In 2012, tourism numbers dropped by 4 million – and revenue was cut by £2 billion.
And that mostly happened during what was thought of as a period of recovery. That all ended on 22nd November last year, when the elected president granted himself unlimited powers to “protect the nation”, which brought hundreds of thousands of people back out onto the street in protest. That public anger at the unaccountability of power, and incompetence in government, remains at boiling point.
As a consequence, in Luxor and Aswan hotel occupancy rates are down at 5% – in Cairo 15% – even Sharm and other Red Sea resorts are only half full. That’s despite crazy loss-leading offers. Jordan, too, has got it in the neck. Lebanon is desperate. Tunisia is struggling. Bahrain is finished. Only Dubai is booming.
Normal no more
Here’s a prediction. If “normal” is what the situation was in 2010 before the Arab uprisings began, then Middle East tourism will not be going “back to normal”. Ever.
There’s a new pattern emerging.
And new opportunities – which most of the travel industry is missing, because they’re too worried by the news headlines to notice.
If you forget about “normal”, there’s a chance presenting itself to rebuild the KIND of tourism the Middle East can offer.
Tourism with integrity.
Tourism where money and resources are channelled to the people of the host destination, rather than siphoned off by big-business cronies of the ruling elite – which is what was happening cheerfully under Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia and is still the case, in marginally different circumstances, in Dubai and the Gulf.
My sense is – as in food, media and a dozen other areas of life – our taste for industrially produced tourism on a mass scale is fading. These days, we want better. At the moment the travel industry is failing us – it’s too slow, and too hidebound by fossilised business practices to react nimbly – but the economic clout it carries, especially in the countries of the Middle East, could be a key driver for tangible change in the region. The travel industry, if it could see what’s happening more clearly, could be prompting root-and-branch innovation in the host countries, driving social integration and helping erase inequalities, and could equally be inspiring new outlooks and new approaches to the Middle East within tourists’ home countries.
At the moment, it is doing neither, because it’s focused on the 2010 way of doing things. Meanwhile, the Middle East has irrevocably, fundamentally and permanently changed.
Bucking the trend
Funnily enough, Jordan – or, rather, Jordanians, since it’s almost always the private sector driving change, not the government – are already bucking the trend.
Jordanians in travel have been busy the last couple of years reinventing their country away from the standard model of cultural-historical big bus tourism, led by the big players, and into a more niche outlook of adventure-style responsible tourism, down at the grassroots.
There are lots of examples. Up in the north is the region’s first-ever community-owned, community-run tourism initiative, the Al Ayoun Trail, where three untouristed hill villages are working together to develop a walking trail, country lodging, homestays and rural enterprises. In the south is Feynan, a desert eco-hotel far off the road, where everything is sourced locally, from food to guides, and where there’s a sense that the business is genuinely part of the rural economy – there’s a cultural to-and-fro at Feynan that’s very hard to find elsewhere (and is the antithesis of similar experiences in the UAE and Oman). Many others in Jordan in similar vein – food, wine, adventure sports and more.
Thanks to the Lebanon Mountain Trail Lebanon now has homestays across the country offering homespun lodging and food – you’ll also find farmers’ markets in Beirut, vineyard tours. Lebanon does rural tourism very well, but most of the media never cover it – they just do the standard Beirut nightlife stories, fawning over swanky hotels and that absurd high-roller lifestyle…
Palestine is a fabulous holiday destination – almost completely untainted by that big-business tourism ethic – from north to south you can be staying with families, exploring city souks and tiny centuries-old stone villages, walking in the hills, or visiting world-class cultural sites. Palestine is a cracking place to spend time, safe, charming, endlessly fascinating – but I challenge you to find one company at this show [Destinations] that could sell you a touring holiday to Palestine.
Nobody knows about it.
Even the Gulf is experiencing something of the same turnaround – there are small tourism operators even in the big-glitz UAE – I kayaked off the coast of Abu Dhabi with Noukhada – in Dubai there are now rootsy, locally run food tours of the city’s older, unvisited districts – and so on, including Oman.
There’s even some of this coming through in Egypt, with retreats and voluntourism-style working holidays in Sinai, for example.
The old tourism will survive, for sure, for many years to come – but the terms of what is ‘normal’ are shifting – it’s up to each country in the Middle East to plot a new and better path, and it’s up to us to reshape our idea of what the region is all about.
Instability. Opportunity. Speciality.
This year, next year, for several years to come, expect INSTABILITY. The Middle East is going through a prolonged revolutionary episode, driven by popular discontent. It will not be over quickly. Even when the killing stops, things won’t settle for years ahead. Work with – and around – the instability.
OPPORTUNITY. Tourism matters hugely to this region. In almost every country it’s at or near the top of the list of contributors to GDP. Buying a package holiday includes protections, of course, but you pay for that with a series of mark-ups – and so do the ordinary people on the ground, who often see little or nothing of the money you spend to visit their country. Once, we didn’t know any better. But now we don’t need to rely on middlemen any longer. Use sources of knowledge – guidebooks, internet searches, social media – to connect with local providers where you want to go. The region’s changes are an opportunity to reshape how we visit these places. Book direct. Take local advice. Don’t rush. See more.
Instead of a bog-standard tour, go for the SPECIALITY option. If you’ve been to Jordan already to see Petra and the ruins, go back to stay with a family, or learn how to cook stuffed vine-leaves, or do some country cycling – get to know the place on YOUR terms, not how a London-based tour company wants you to see it.
Change is good
Hospitality is a key aspect of Arab culture – people are fantastically welcoming – but because of the way tourism has developed in all these countries, as a state-directed driver of the national economy, and because of the cultural imperatives dictating the formality of the relationship between guest and host, all these countries have built tourist industries that essentially keep tourists away from locals.
That, at last, is changing. We need to change with it.