A tourism revolution

dskempinskiLast 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.




  1. Tony howard

    well said mathew. It’s certainly taken time in Jordan for grass roots adventure tourism to get going – but start it has, and what a good job the new generation of Jordanians are making of it, from Rum to Petra, Dana, the Dead Sea Canyons and up north around Al Ayoun and Pella. It’s a pity the guys at the Tourism Ministry never really understood it, other than Nasri Atallah when he was Director in the 1980s.

  2. pharaonick

    Sounds like an interesting talk, Matthew–I wish I’d heard it first hand. While I completely agree with everything that you say, I think it’s important not to downplay the economic dimension of the Egyptian revolution–especially in its current phase, as two years of political instability and moribund tourism bite ever harder. Sadly, and understandably, I can’t see tourism picking up substantially in the country any time soon. It’s all rather chicken and egg.

  3. Kathryn

    It was a fascinating talk and wonderful to be able to go back over it here. Thank you. Well said indeed!

  4. Richard Trillo

    Fascinating talk Matthew, but we have to remember how many potential visitors – even at a quite earnest, eager, independent-minded event like Destinations – want to be given a strong steer from a trusted source on where to go and what to do. How to narrow the range of choice. How to be in the right place at the right time. What can be done in X days, and so on.

    The local businesses you’re talking about will largely fail if they can’t tap into clued-up, responsible tour operators in source markets who don’t care *only* about the bottom line, do want to include them in itineraries, and have the experience and communications skills to sell them transparently to travellers.

    I’ve just been to a packed evening at the Royal Geographical Society where four Maasai representatives from an excellent and long-established community wildlife lodge in an otherwise entirely pastoral corner of northern Kenya presented incontrovertible evidence that their kind of tourism works for the community, the tourists and the wildlife. They have royal (UK) connections. And yet they wobble along with 25% occupancy because they’re not part of a large group, or owned by the Aga Khan, or close to a main road. Il Ngwesi is world-famous, but doesn’t get anything like enough visitors to be confident of surviving. We have to encourage destination communities to change their mindsets about what tourists want. Kenya currently has an absurd “Vision 2030” blueprint which includes something called “Resort Cities” – good luck to them with finding investors for those… Even if some tourism “products” are clearly not going to work, a lot of tourists return time after time to what they know and enjoy without appreciating the step-change in experience, reward and interaction they could have by making a slightly different choice. Equally importantly, we have to support tour operators at home who offer the kind of trips we want to go on. The independent market is increasingly important, but in the Middle East and Africa at least it’s still dwarfed by inclusive tours of one sort or another.

  5. Jon Killpack

    Well said Matthew. I hope the market continues to move toward and demand connection (human & environmental) and away from disengagement. May the leadership of these countries move in that direction as well.

  6. Matthew Teller

    @Tony – Thank you – and I agree: prospects for tourism innovation in Jordan are growing all the time.

    @pharaonick – You’re right; I wasn’t seeking to downplay it at all – apologies if it seemed that way. The Egyptian people are really suffering, and it looks like the hardship is deepening, not easing. People in tourism, in particular, are suffering in part because they are locked into an outmoded, monolithic model of state tourism which has, for decades, concentrated wealth in elite hands. They need help to escape. My point is that that help could (and should) come from the global travel industry, alongside domestic economic & political reform.

    @Richard – hi Richard, and thanks for an (as always) admirably clear-minded contribution. Really appreciate it. You’re right about audience expectations: I just felt like the time was right to go off-message a little! Your example of Il Ngwesi is very apt – as you say: “We have to encourage destination communities to change their mindsets about what tourists want.” Spot on.

    Thanks, too, to @Jon and @Kathryn for kind words.

  7. pharaonick

    @Matthew, Yup, spot on about the injustices of monolithic state tourism, and the role that the global tourism industry could and should be playing. BUT I have questions/concerns (apologies for the long comment):

    This meaningful change in the structure of the tourism industry needs – as you say – to come alongside meaningful political, social, and economic change; not just another ‘stable’ government with a veneer of democracy. While tourism should feed into Egypt’s economic recovery, and can play a large role in other aspects of domestic reform, I find it difficult to see how any meaningful volume of tourism can take place that benefits ‘society’ (rather than merely feeding the elite) UNTIL AFTER such changes have already taken place in the country to facilitate this. But tourism reform should, ideally, be one of the driving forces for this reform. UGH, I don’t think I’m expressing myself well. But that was what I meant before by “chicken and egg”.

    At what point can/does this injection of tourism goodness take place? I remember back in Feb 2011 a bunch of us were talking about how, yes, tourism will play a pivotal part in Egypt’s recovery over the *mid term*. Well, I understand change takes time, but it feels like the situation in Egypt is still stuck in the short term (if not before!). This mid term seems to be predicated on some idea of stability; and of course if we are talking about tourism as a force for wider social good, then much deeper changes as well.

    I may be overly pessimistic, but I can’t see this happening any time soon. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s perfectly safe to visit Egypt, though with a LOT more caveats than before: avoid demonstrations; be careful in Downtown Cairo, especially at night; be more selective about cabs; avoid the Sinai other than Sharm, Dahab, & probably Nuweiba; be prepared for unrest, delays (eg train line closure), and just generally keep your ear to the ground and pay attention; plus normal precautions you should be taking anywhere in the world. So yeah, people can go, but they won’t at the minute; at least not in the numbers that will make any ‘difference’. And besides, at the moment I’m genuinely not sure about the country’s ability to sustain the large-scale tourism of yore–and besides, with the current set-up the money is still going to get channeled upwards. So, what’s our time scale here?

    And this is all without addressing the issue of how to restructure a tourist industry traditionally so reliant on poorly-maintained and criminally over-stressed monuments (and no matter how much emphasis is pumped into the huge potential of Egypt’s largely-unknown desert wilderness, the old stones will always be the main draw), along with a cancerous Red Sea tourism that, quite frankly, needs to contract.

    Sorry for the excessively negative (and long) comment. I hope I’m wrong. But from my vantage point (for anyone reading this far who doesn’t know me: I left Egypt in summer 2012 after six years working mainly in travel/tourism in one form or another) I’m struggling to see much hope in the short term, and I worry this short term may be longer than want.

  8. Josh Sutton

    Considering it took centuries to build our own (UK) democracy, it’s of little surprise that it remains a ‘Will O’ the Wisp’ in the Middle East, where paranoid dictators wiped out any platform for the development of a social/political discourse. If more people wrote, like you do, to tell it how it is, then perhaps we could all focus on the day to day opportunities and achievements, which are materialising, instead of dreaming of a democracy that is at least half a century away!

  9. Helen Devries

    From right outside the travel industry I found your address hit all the right targets for me as a tourist.

    Of course we went to Luxor to see the monuments….but we did it by hiring a horse and trap…the driver took us to meet his family…we had all the time we wanted for visits…the driver’s family suggested good places to eat (and they were) and showed us where to buy what we wanted.
    What do we remember most of the trip?
    The people we met, the conversations we had, the picture of Egypt that we were given.

    I’m now living in Costa Rica, where the tourist industry depends heavily on the very hotel resorts which keep tourist income out of the hands of local people.
    There is an initiative to encourage rural home stays, with introduction to local food production and crafts…but it is tiny and does not get much government support.
    How a country that bellows how green it is permits zip lines to be put up in the forest tops is beyond me…..when you can see more wildlife by renting a cabina in the country and watching what’s in the garden.

  10. DesiValentine

    One of my students is from Isreal. She considers herself a progressive Israeli Jew and, when she goes home once a year, she does enter the markets in Palestine to buy souvenirs for friends at home and meet a personal obligation to make cultural boundaries more permeable in a state she loves. However, it can be a stressful and dangerous endeavour. Hospitality is not extended to everyone to all faces. But perhaps, because she is not a tourist but a returning daughter, she isn’t permitted to distance herself from her history. Food for thought, anyway. Thank you for offering an alternative perspective.

  11. segmation

    It would be nice to see in the Mideast some permanent peace with all including the Arabs and the Jews. I hope that this will happen in our lifetime. Don’t you think?

  12. moodsnmoments

    very well said Matthew! captivating and insightful!!!

  13. Jean

    I was just reading about Dubai’s dark underside:

    Now what would be useful is for newly sprung modern looking countries like Dubai, is to get the tourists out of the shiny malls and into history, real local life. OK? At least, China for all its polluting modernism and gritty lifestyles in many areas, isn’t hiding it. Tourism best entertains and teaches a person, touches the person to appreciate their own home country later.

  14. jalal michael sabbagh.http://gravatar.com/[email protected]

    With respect to you and the commentators .A tourism aspect to The Middle- East is a myth .Terrorism. Kidnapping , Arab Spring.The void of security ,the sand storms, sizzling summer.I did not read any thing about these issues in your promotion speech.jalal

  15. TheGirl


    I have nominated you for The Versatile Blogger Award. Please check http://www.TheReporterandTheGirl.com for award rules and a list of nominations which include you! Congratulations, you worked very hard and you deserve it, happy weekend and great blog!


  16. theeagertraveller

    Great speech on instigating and encouraging tourism in Middle East especially with the current menace and hence bad publicity. Should we see significant changes which you’ve mentioned and recommended, I think they will certainly see tourists flocking in.

  17. Andrew Alkire

    fascinating.. worth reading.. thanks..

  18. curlyadventurer

    This is an incredibly revelatory perspective. I felt the same way when I travelled through South America at the end of 2012. The experience was always so much better if you could actually connect with the locals. The companies often overcharged for a watered down cultural experience.

  19. dimirav

    How about south east Asia? I come from an Island faces with Pacific exactly in Mollucas archipelago, Indonesia. How I rises the tourism here? May be you have intuition for this? hehehehe

  20. fatim308

    Reblogged this on fatim.abdulrahman Blog and commented:
    I love this post!! My thought on reflection

  21. Christina

    Matthew – I appreciate your points about “new” tourism and the value of community led visitor experiences. I’m happy to see these developing in Jordan and some other Mid-East nations and hope that they continue to grow.

    However, from the outside, Egypt seems far off from adopting these endeavors. I think Nick’s safety caveats are very valid. While every traveler should be aware of their surroundings and safety, its hard to justifying going some place when you already know there is a higher chance something could go wrong. If a visitor does not perceive that a destination is safe or that their valueable (time and money) holiday plans may be altered due to demonstrations or that it will be stressful to remain so vigilent while visiting, then why would someone ever select that locaiton to begin with? There are a lot of travel options and safety/comfort are probably one of the first criteria for choosing a location. A thriving independent Egyptian tourism industry requries this revolution to move forward a little more first.

    I’d be happy to hear that I’m wrong, but this is my perception of the climate in Egypt currently and public opinion has a huge on tourism, or traveling, whatever the case may be.

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! This is certainly a thought provoking post.

  22. theforeigntraveller

    Great read! This article makes me excited to travel to the Middle East one day (hopefully) soon. I love the idea of a “new normal” for tourism. I would love to see it around the world, not just in the Middle East.

  23. eupassenger

    I’m about to go on my first trip to less touristy developed places in the Middle East so your post made me curious. You provide food for thought and I agree that tourism in the area will develop differently to tourism in other regions. However, you gotta bare in mind your target customers. What do they want? What is their idea of a perfect holiday? And yes, demand varies. However, tourist providers can try and demonstrate cleverly devised concepts of holiday adventures – but in the end it’s the customer that has to buy. Given some of the above comments, the least you can say is that there are still many doubts. Hence, in future questions on peace, security, quality, etc. have to be tackled in more depth to make a convincing argument and, essentially, to sell your product.

  24. Matthew Teller

    Heavens! Thank you everyone. This post was picked up on Saturday (9 Feb) by WordPress.com editors for their ‘Freshly Pressed” daily digest, which has resulted in a flood of traffic – and a host of new comments. Thank you everyone for your thoughts and contributions. Some responses:

    @Pharaonick – You’re right to be concerned. I also see little hope in the short term for a restructuring of Egyptian tourism. This is a long, long process.

    @Josh Sutton – You’re very kind, thank you. This is a key issue – regime control of public space and suppression of dissent.

    @Helen Devries – Thanks, Helen. You open a window to address @Pharaonick’s sense that the “old stones” will always be the main draw. I’m not so sure. The reasons people used to travel in the past are not necessarily the reasons that people will be travelling in the future. More experiences like Helen’s, spread by word of mouth, relegate the old stones to what could be called their rightful place – behind cultural interaction.

    @DesiValentine – Interesting perspective. The role of “locals” in facilitating cross-cultural interaction – both for their own communities and for outsiders – is critical to success or failure, I’d say.

    @Jean – A word of caution. That article on Dubai – by Johann Hari, a discredited British writer exposed as a plagiarist and fantasist – was widely ridiculed when it came out in 2009.

    @Jalal Michael Sabbagh – Thanks for your note, but I’m not sure of your point. Terrorism happens everywhere. As does kidnapping. And extreme weather. In what sense is tourism a “myth”?

    @Christina – Thank you for your thoughts. You said “It’s hard to justify going some place when you already know there’s a higher chance something could go wrong.” Is it? How about Miami, Detroit or, well, Manhattan? Plenty could go wrong there – more, in truth, than in Jordan or even Egypt. Barcelona is a very risky city for tourists. Things go “wrong” for visitors (and locals) much more frequently in Moscow, Delhi or Bangkok than Dubai, Amman or Luxor. This is all about popular impressions, formed on the basis of limited knowledge. Travel is inherently risky. Travel to supposedly “safe” places is no guarantee of safety.

    @eupassenger – You’re absolutely right. My sense is that customers’ tastes – particularly with regard to the Middle East – may be changing. The old tourism, as I said in my original article, will survive for years, but something else is coming through, too.

    Thanks again to everyone for kind comments and enthusiasm. More please!

  25. Michele LMS

    Greatly appreciated your insights on the “Arab Spring,” (which as you say is a misnomer), its effects on the travel industry in the Middle East, and your emphasis on tracking down local packages! . . . I have been an expatriate residing in the Arab Gulf since 2000, and have definitely derived the most enjoyment and enrichment from my local experiences when travelling in the broader region. . . . Thank you for sharing!


  26. Louise

    Absolutely agree, but there still remains the problem of all those dodgy taxi drivers…..

  27. Jason Preater

    It was always pretty obvious that tourism would be a fickle market. Since I live in Spain and can see the appalling consequences of gearing an economy towards holidays- the Mediterranean conurbation that has more-or-less wiped out the coastline from Barcelona to Marbella- my first response is not a big hurray to ideas for new developments. Where I live now in Asturias there was a boom in rural tourism which supposedly hit all those warm and fuzzy eco buttons, but it was pumped by local government, is now over-regulated by absurd quality control mechanisms and was not as free from corruption as you might think. Typically some bureaucrat would buy a small country plot and use his connections to get access to restoration grants. Now there are too many country cottages for the market, which is shrinking because of the economic downturn, and the cash-strapped government is squeezing the fiscal screws on what really was a cottage industry. Does rural tourism add value? Depends what you mean by value and it depends what you mean by sustainability: if installations get abandoned because of the market they are not sustainable no matter what their architectural thinking.

  28. carolemscott

    This is a great article. I am forever urging people to go to Jordan, as it is a great place to go no matter what is happening in bordering countries. I haven’t been for some years and it’s wonderful to read about new, sustainable and speciality initiatives, as I’m hoping to go back early next year.

  29. Matthew Teller

    Thanks again, everyone. So great to get such strong feedback.

    Jason – that’s a particularly interesting perspective, not least for the startling idea of corruption in rural tourism. The Middle East, as you know, isn’t exactly free from corruption itself – but the rural/eco/nature tourism sector is so tiny it seems to have (mostly) escaped the crooks’ attention so far. That may change, of course – and the regulatory structures in place are generally so weak I doubt they would be able to hold back the tide. The saving grace, in Jordan at least, is a surprisingly strong and vocal environmental lobby – they have already successfully forced a review of 2 or 3 separate development projects in and around Jordan’s last surviving native forest land. Interesting times ahead – thanks again.

  30. gravittyshatters

    Well written.Totally agree with you.

  31. Matthew Teller

    Gravitty, Red, thank you.

  32. Susan

    Matthew this is what I have been hopeful of hearing from more tourism people in Egypt, and I am devoted to seeing travel/tourism heading the way you predict it should. I just hope others in the industry will start to see things this way. I moved here to live in late 2010 after travelling here repeatedly since 1993. I certainly wasn’t anticipating the Revolution. You are right, there is no going back. But I believe there IS a an even better future ahead and we can make it happen. Egypt has youth and enthusiasm on its side, it just needs more leadership and examples of what is possible, to get tourism happening again.

  33. Marija Perisic

    Really great article, but I think Qatar and Doha were also worth mentioning here 🙂

  34. Mubarak


  35. zoetic * epics

    That’s sad, meeting locals is the utmost highlight of why I love to travel! Hopefully this changes soon!

  36. Katka

    What a great article! I miss Syria so much, my last visit was during the revolution, in June. I will never forget the sunrise in empty Palmyra. Abraham trail sounds great!

  37. Katka

    Reblogged this on ORIENTOHOLIC and commented:
    A great, great analysis of where Middle East stands as far as tourism is concerned at the moment.

  38. philandeunice

    As someone who lived in Tunisia throughout the period before and after the revolution I would add another aspect to your excellent analysis about the causes of the changes sweeping North Africa and the Middle East revolution. People, in particular young people, are demanding the dignity of a job.

    Mass tourism was a way for Ben Ali’s cronies to make money out of their country’s natural assets and helped create employment in the short term but not fast enough and certainly not sustainably.

    I entirely endorse the idea of a different kind of tourism. There are wonderful things to see in Tunisia away from the coastal area and in the regions most needing investment. There are also a lot of entrepreneurial young people who need support in opening these up to the kind of tourist who wants to experience the country and the culture but who can live with a bit of uncertainty. This will create employment and hope at a local level.

    I agree this is not the time to turn away from the region but to invest.

  39. Matthew Teller

    Thank you all, for enthusiasm and kind words.

    I’m with you, Susan.

    Marija – you might be right about mentioning Qatar, but tourism in the Gulf is a rather different thing, and Doha is a latecomer to the party as well. Thin pickings just now, I’d say.

    Philandeunice – you’re absolutely right. I hope people who can effect change are reading this.

  40. susanmaedetera

    great read…i was never attracted to visit middle east as i do not know much about its tourism industry except the dessert and the sand dunes….reading your post gave me a lot of information ….. guess i have to squeeze it on my bucket list…..thanks from sharing…

  41. varun321

    That’s an interesting take on why this is happening. I’ve always thought it was about democracy, peace and everything else. I never imagined that it was simply about accountability. That is a very different take on this, and I like it.

  42. Katrine Carstens

    Thank you Matthew – I have been intrigued about responsible tourism in the Middle East for a while now and your story has given me a great insight into the situation. I think you are right that out of this instable situation, tourism as a force for good can indeed emerge – tourism that connects locals and travellers and furthers cultural exchange.
    It won’t be an easy road, but I do see hope.
    Keep up the good work!

  43. Matthew Teller

    Thanks again, everyone.

    The Middle East, sadly, is the home of irresponsible tourism, but – as you’re seeing, Katrine – another way is taking hold. Lots of good work being done in the region. Stay in touch!

  44. legendsofyouth

    Very informative, thanks for sharing!

  45. postcardfromawanderer.com

    I very much agree with your comments. Thank you for posting!

  46. Arva Ahmed

    Wow. My mind is a jumble of thoughts. I’ve realized that after a year of working on the food tours, there’s a way, WAY bigger picture that needs to be considered. For me it was always about shedding light on the small, authentic guys, giving the city a soul. But as you rightly said, tourism in Dubai is booming and I didn’t even consider that the Old Dubai tours could be one of many fish in the sea that are all swimming in the same direction – towards creating a sustainable tourism industry post-dictatorship in the broader region. This is one of those articles that will probably churn through my head for a long time now…it’s really eye-opening when someone drags you out of the weeds (read: bureaucracy) and makes sense of something you feel passionately about at a very, very small but not insignificant scale.

    This post is also exactly the thing my family needs to read at a time when I’ve announced that I’ll be travelling more to experience foods across the Middle East first hand. And they know me well enough to know that I’ll be crawling into exactly those places where I can get a taste of the true local stuff – a thought that scares the living daylights out of my folks. I’ll be coming back to this article for links and resources – especially your recommendation on Palestine.

    Thank you once again Matt. For making me think beyond my very limited, Dubai-centric boundary walls.

  47. xplorer

    There is nothing myopic or boundaried about your perspective Matthew. A brilliant and beautiful piece of writing and I am so pleased you got a chance to spread this message at the Destinations event in London and sad that a current project prevented us from meeting. May I possibly reprint your post on Conscious Travel? The examples you give of alternative forms of tourism emerging in the region are inspiring – sounds like they are not letting this crisis go to waste.

  48. Matthew Teller

    Arva, we’ll talk elsewhere but thanks for coming by here anyhow – and I’m so pleased the talk chimed with you. I’m looking forward to seeing how things change at Frying Pan Adventures once you get a taste for koshary IN CAIRO and kunafeh IN NABLUS… 🙂

    Anna – thank you so much for kind words. With the caveat that this is only notes from a talk, written to be spoken aloud (which is why it reads a bit clunkily!), of course – I’d be delighted and honoured if you would repost it on Conscious Travel. Thank you. I didn’t dwell on too many examples of alternative Middle East tourism – there are many more but I felt the talk was already pretty dense…

  49. GalOnTrip

    great article. things you said about what suppose to see in some middle eastern countries are very interesting and many don’t know these facts. however, if anybody wants to do as you advise, where can they start searching the destinations and how to guarantee the safety of travellers who are not familiar with middle east? regarding local tours (if any), how do you indicate whether it’s safe and sure they are as honest as they promise? many travellers prefer taking tours because they are afraid of the safety and instability, but really keen to know the country and curious for its beauty and history. thanks.

  50. J West Hardin

    I don’t like the idea that I could get my head chopped off or be imprisoned for speaking about freedom, or voicing my opinions…after all..isn’t that why people flee to the west…to avoid those maniacal cultures…..why would I want to support such oppression? I will never travel anywhere if my wife has to wear a sack over her head for fear of being assaulted…just saying…there are many choices to travel…if the Arab countries want our tourism dollar..why not clean up their act and work to insure freedom and safety for tourists.

  51. Matthew Teller

    Gal – thanks so much. There are multiple sources of information on how to travel – not just in the Middle East, but anywhere you’re not familiar with. Top of the list is guidebooks – trustworthy, respected brands like Rough Guides (who I write for), Lonely Planet, Bradt and a couple others. The people who write guidebooks know their stuff. Piggyback on existing networks of travel writers on Twitter and ask your questions there. Seek out expat forums, specialist blogs, locally written sites on culture and tourism… all that stuff. It’s out there.

    J – well, with as much respect as I can muster, what a load of baloney. You, dear sir, will not get your “head chopped off” and your wife need not travel in fear of “assault” – but the chances of me and my wife getting our heads blown off by some gun-toting maniac in, say, Dallas are much higher. I am afraid to travel in the United States. I am not afraid to travel in Jordan, or Dubai, or Palestine. People in the Arab world are well able to differentiate between the actions of a government and the broader underlying culture – unlike, it seems, you. Were you to travel to the Middle East, you would be respected and welcomed, and your presence would be celebrated by everyone you met, since they would not associate you with the actions of any particular government – in sharp contrast, I should add, to the way Arabs experience travel in North America.

    If you do not wish to “support oppression”, and you hate the idea of people getting locked up unjustifiably, I wonder why you write in such glowing terms about Texas. And Thailand.

    Perhaps because you secretly understand that travel to a place – to make a personal connection, to see for yourself, to weigh daily realities against hype – is in itself a form of resistance against oppression.

    You talk of dollars. Maybe you’re a US citizen; maybe not. Either way, the US likes offering money with strings attached – it’s made a career out of it, the last 60 years. Safe to say the recipients – the people I mean, not their governments – have been a touch ambivalent. And just look at what that money has bought.

    Here’s a word of advice. Keep your tourism dollar; I doubt anyone really wants it, if it comes with fear and loathing attached. Stay at home.

    I would add “home is safer than travelling”, but in the US’s case, even that’s not true.

    1. Jon Killpack


      I appreciate your candor in the last response. I live, with my (American) wife and (American) children, in Jordan. As shocking as it may seem to people who haven’t traveled to the region, I can say that I (as an American) feel safer in the Middle East than I do in my own country.

      I am saddened that the image developed in America of the Middle East is one of brutality and barbarism. It is not the case.

      I remember the first time I met a Muslim “sheikh” in the States. He wore a long robe and a long beard. He approached me to shake my hand. My heart started pounding and the fight or flight alarm was ringing loudly in my head. That reaction was based on ignorance and too much FOX News. After a conversation (and a meal) with this man, I could see how wrong I was.

      May we (myself included) hold off our judgements on people until we actually know them, instead of basing them on a grossly misrepresented caricature of them.

  52. Jeff | Planet Bell

    Excellent and thoughtful post. I traveled around Jordan-Egypt-Isreal-Palestine-Morocco in 2009 and absolutely loved it. Jordan, pound for pound, is my favorite country in the world.

    I like how you explain that it isn’t one Arab Spring, but rather multiple smaller revolutions. I haven’t really thought of it that way.

    I hope the region can stabalize and the people can have a better life. I thought the people there were some of the nicest I’ve met anywhere.

  53. mflahertyphoto

    I’d love to go. I’m an independent tourist and photographer who likes to get in touch with the local populace. The big thing for me and those I know is how truly friendly are the people, and how over the top is the glitz scene. I’m more a nature and village type. I did go to Turkey once, and the people are marvelous. But I’ll be honest. Everything you talked about, right up until the end, means near nothing to the average American tourist (package, backpacker, whatever). What matters is how we will be treated, how genuine the people are, will we be treated differently because we’re big bad Americans? Yuck!!! We want no part of that. I have a more open mind than many of my countrymen, but I know there is a fear of that happening. I’m sure the perception is undeserved, but…

    Also, and for me this is pretty big, we want to know whether the population is constantly on the make. Are they so ambitious that I’ll come back thinking I had just spent a few weeks on the set of “The Hustler” remake, or will they interact with me as if I was shaped like a person and not a dollar sign. For women (traveling alone especially) they want to know in addition whether the males of the population are on a different kind of make every time they spy a stray blonde hair. Just my 2 cents on priorities for would-be tourists. The other stuff is interesting to know of course.

  54. Jerry Sorkin

    It is always a shame when the media takes things out of proportion….

    Yesterday morning I awoke in my hotel room in southwest Tunisia town of Gafsa, often referred to as a “hotbed”. The BBC was running a piece on the resignation of Tunisia’s Prime Minister, Hammadi Jebali, which took place the night before. The BBC piece said the resignation has once “again” thrown Tunisia into “turmoil”. The visuals showed film footage of a prior demonstration with tear gas, from earlier in February .

    As one who lives most of the year in Tunisia, I can assure people that unless one goes to Avenue Bourguiba, the main street in Tunis, when announced demonstrations are known, cities are generally calm, people are out in cafes, shops and going about their day like any other day.

    Unfortunately, the example of the media is not understanding the process of democratic transition in Tunisia. Using past film footage in itself was visually misleading, as are loaded words such as “turmoil” to describe Tunisia’s political happenings.

    Tunisians have for the most part seen a rather peaceful political process take place. The February 6th killing of Chokri Belaid, a lawyer and political activist representing secular views from Tunisia’s political left was a shock for all Tunisians! The relatively peaceful transition since the January 2011 Revolution was now marked by an assassination and the use of a gun, two shocking symbols in Tunisia. Tunisia has never seen the violence that has marked Syria, Libya, Lebanon, or even the level of protests that have been seen in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

    The killing of Belaid, implicitly, pointed a finger at Ennahda, the Islamic political party that holds a plurality of roughly 41% in Tunisia’s freely elected Constituent Assembly. Why is the finger being pointed at Ennahda? There was no one other than the Islamic political movement that would have wanted Belaid silenced, as it was against Ennahda that Belaid voiced his opposition. The assumed is that it was Ennahda or their sympathizers who would want him out of the picture.

    Hammadi Jebali, was appointed Prime Minister by Ennadha, as their plurality based on the democratic and transparent elections of October 23, 2011 permitted them to choose the Prime Minister position. Jabali has been a long time Ennahda member and served more than a decade and half in prison during the Ben Ali years in Tunisia. Today, many in Tunisia have seen Jebali as a puppet to Rachid Ghannouchi, one of the founders and the undisputable leader of Ennahda.

    Since Belaid’s death, Jebali felt the stink of the taint that has been cast over Ennahda. Perhaps to deflect himself from this stink, a week ago he called for a government of technocrats, rather than the present political leaders who by all Tunisians’ accounts, have accomplished nothing. The idea of bringing back technocrats met with favor from many Tunisians, except Ennahda’s Ghannouchi and his followers, who said it was unacceptable that technocrats should replace people who were in their positions due to the political will of voters. Jebali said he would work behind the scenes to try and make it a policy change, but if he could not accomplish this, he would resign.

    Last night, Jebali did just that! No one knows what is really behind Jebali’s decision, but Jebali. His actions are most likely motivated by one of several possibilities:
    1) He is acting to uphold his word, acting as a result of Ennahda’s decision not to consider technocrats.
    2) He wants to not carry the taint which will now follow the death of Belaid and thus, as he said in his closing resignation speech…he wants to be the Prime Minister of all Tunisia, not of Ennahda.
    3) The theory favored by conspiracy theorists that the entire process since the killing of Belaid, including Jebali’s resignation, is that of a charade being orchestrated by Ennahda.

    Most people can see this as an honorable move on his part, regardless of what one may have thought of him until now. The small Constitution now calls for President Moncef Marzouki to call on Ennahda to appoint a PM, as they are the party holding the plurality and thus, entitled to carry the PM post. Now the question is, who will Ennahda appoint? They know that polls show they, Ennahda, are not longer a front runner, but rather, in a dead heat with Nida Tounes, the umbrella organization founded by Beji Caid Essebsi to try and form a political block of centrist democrats.

    All of this political wrangling is unfairly cast by the media as “turmoil”. However, our own Congress plays with brinksmanship regarding the “fiscal cliff”, name calling among politicians, debates on whether automatic weapons are an entitled right to own based on our Second Amendment right to bear arms…all of which is viewed by the political eyes of the rest of the world as politically puzzling.

    What will evolve in Tunisia’s political process in the days and weeks ahead is any pundit’s guess. However, for a young democracy that went for decades under dictatorships, “turmoil” and “violence” are not adjectives that aptly describe Tunisia’s political process. Rather, democratic political transition, which includes ups and downs, is the more appropriate description of what is taking place.

    Hopefully, the United States, the UK and other democratic countries can continue providing their support to Tunisia to help them through this process of their very new democracy. It is probably wishful thinking, but it would also be nice if the media captured Tunisia as it really is…very different from the other so-dubbed, “Arab Spring” countries and one that for the most part, is peaceful and learning that the road do democracy does not happen overnight!

  55. goanflavour

    Nice article. Well written and succinct. An enlightening read.

  56. rajasthant

    Excellent article. Very informative and interesting to read.

  57. Matthew Teller

    @goanflavour @rajasthant Thank you both, much appreciated.

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