Hope of return to the Middle East

<em>Illustration: michaelmucci.com</em>
Illustration: michaelmucci.com

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings, Australians have continued to stay away, but operators are optimistic a turnaround is on the way.

With Egypt's presidential elections over, tour operators are hoping travel to the Middle East will finally start to recover.

Travellers have been continuing to avoid the region for more than a year after the high-profile conflicts of the Arab Spring in late 2010.

Tour operators believe a lack of understanding about the region and misconceptions about safety are keeping people away unnecessarily - when they could be making the most of the cheaper prices arising from the tourism downturn.

Traffic is slowly starting to pick up but most operators report numbers are still well down on 2010, before the wave of revolution and protests began.

Tourism ministers and industry leaders from throughout the region came together at May's Arabian Travel Market in Dubai to discuss ways to combat the ongoing challenges brought about by the Arab Spring.

Many destinations in the region have set ambitious targets for visitor numbers and their success will depend on their ability to convince travellers it is safe to return.

The chief executive of large tour operator Cox & Kings, Steve Reynolds, says he is surprised by the extent to which Australians have stayed away.

"If you compare it to other situations [around the world], the recovery has been quite slow, comparatively," Reynolds says.

"The Egypt situation is now more than 18 months old and the numbers [of visitors from Australia] are still quite small."

Reynolds says the terrorist attacks on London in 2005 barely disrupted tourism, while events in the Arab world have kept people away for more than a year.

"I would urge people to take a greater sense of perspective," he says. "We are much more desensitised to risk in places that we perceive to be safer, but people talk about the Middle East as if it's this very dangerous place.

"I don't think that's the case."

Reynolds says events in Egypt, for example, have generally occurred around demonstrations and away from areas that tourists frequent.

"If you're not part of the demonstration then you really have nothing to fear," he says.

The sales pitch is not made any easier by the Australian government's official advice advising travellers to reconsider their need to travel to Egypt in general, or to "exercise a high degree of caution" in areas such as Luxor and the Red Sea resorts. But Reynolds, who recently took his children on a holiday to Egypt, says the country is no more dangerous than Britain.

"I think there are risks associated with travelling anywhere, including outside your front door," he says.

Adventure tourism operator G Adventures says it is seeing a slow recovery of visitor numbers but it is likely to be towards the end of this year or early next year before they get back to previous levels.

World Expeditions has also taken a hit, with bookings to Egypt sitting at just 40 per cent of the levels achieved in 2010.

However, the company says bookings are picking up.

"The negative media coverage is still very fresh in many potential travellers' minds, but this is changing quickly," says the chief executive of World Expeditions, Sue Badyari.

However, Badyari says it is a different story for the rest of the Middle East, with destinations such as Jordan and Morocco compromised by civil conflict in Syria. "We see Syria's recovery as key to recovery in the whole region," she says.

Intrepid Travel reports a different experience, with passenger numbers to Jordan, Morocco and Turkey recording "solid growth" during last year and into this year.

Bookings for one Jordan trip are up 75 per cent, year-on-year, while the company's top-selling Morocco trip is up 67 per cent.

"This suggests travellers are still keen to experience the region and have simply switched their focus to other trips in neighbouring countries," says the general manager of global sales for Intrepid, James Thornton.

Luxury operator Abercrombie & Kent is also reporting a boom in travel to Morocco, while there has been a "steady" return of business to the rest of the region.

The company says it suffered an overall drop of 60 per cent in travel to the Middle East as a result of the Arab Spring uprisings and now travellers who want to go to the region can benefit from offers such as two-for-one tours.

Support vote

The World Tourism Organisation UNWTO has welcomed the election of the Egyptian President, Mohamed Morsi, and praised him for his pro-tourism approach.

In his first speech after taking office, Morsi made a commitment to restore the role of tourism for the benefit of the Egyptian economy.

UNWTO says tourism is one of the leading foreign exchange earners and job creators for Egypt and its recovery will be boosted by the political support "at the highest level". Egypt welcomed 14 million international tourists in 2010, with arrivals dropping by a third last year, according to UNWTO figures.

This story Hope of return to the Middle East first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.