Middle East Tourism in the age of the Coronavirus

James Denseiow

International travel is surely the antithesis of the kind of lockdowns that have dominated large parts of the globe over the past few months. Airports are empty, aircraft are grounded and across the Middle East iconic tourist locations, from the Pyramids to Petra are deserted. This is a sharp halt to the increasing trend of visitors to the region, indeed 2018 saw a 10% increase of visitors totalling up to 87 million arrivals bringing with them some $77bn in tourism receipts.

In the Middle East, Travel and Tourism represents 8.7 percent of the region’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and supports 5.4 million jobs. Today, however, the region is estimated to be losing almost $7bn a month due to Coronavirus crisis which is occurring simultaneously as a oil price war which is causing unprecedented shock for the economy.

Parts of the region are all to familiar with the fickle nature of tourism. Terrorist attacks like those on hotels in Jordan and Tunisia or famously at ancient sites in Luxor, Egypt have led to significant pauses in visitors coming and hardship for those or rely directly or indirectly on tourism for their livelihoods. Yet the trend towards increased global travel seemed unstoppable until COVID-19 came long, and one country losing out on tourists due to geopolitics would invariably mean another gaining.

For instance, the politics of the Syrian conflict meant that several years ago Russian tourists boycotted Turkey, which in turn led to Cyprus selling out all its hotel rooms over a summer. This time the negative impact is far more uniform. What is difference is the presence and impact of the virus between different countries and the policies that they are adopting in response. Iran’s numbers are worse than Egypt’s, some countries have banned all international flights, others are imposing strict entry tests and imposing periods of quarantine afterwards. Neither of these are particularly conducive to tourists wanting a short relaxing weeklong break.

Saudi Arabia has already stopped the entry of the huge and lucrative pilgrimage market. the cruise ship industry has suffered particularly badly after several deadly incidents where the virus ravaged those on board and country’s like Oman are banning them from their ports. Much of the region had benefited for the rise of tourists coming from China, which is likely to slow as the country undergoes its first serious economic crisis of a generation.

The critical difference between previous shocks to the region’s tourism trade and the challenge today is that the very fundamentals of global travel are being undermined by the virus. Major airlines are being bailed out by the state or threatening to go bust as the prospect of a vastly quieter global sky becomes more apparent. The virus likely found its way around the world on planes and the prospect of being trapped on a long-haul flight near a coughing fellow passenger is enough to significantly alter the decision-making behaviour of a would-be tourist.

Remember that tourism is at its heart supposed to be relaxing and fun. Those who are still using planes today talk of heat scanners in the airport, terrified passengers queuing and sitting far apart, mask wearing cabin crew and the prospect of COVID tests and detention upon arrival. This is hardly the stuff summer holidays are made of and will, when combined with a depressed global economy, mean that especially in the absence of a widely adopted vaccine, tourism will take longer to bounce back than many other industries.

This is a seriously negative outcome for people across a region where tourism was increasingly part of a diversification strategy away from oil and gas. Youth unemployment in the region was already the worst in the world and now faces a perfect storm or ‘black swan’ level of challenge in the combinations of crisis. Coronavirus restrictions to trade, the collapse in oil prices tourism will likely worsen the already high public and external debt vulnerabilities of many countries in the region warn the IMF.

Such damage to economies that were already not delivering for large chunks of the population will inevitably be exploited by extremist groups and those that argue for more radical realignment of the region’s politics. More than ever cooperation and collective solutions are needed across the region to respond to this level of challenge. Where there is hope in the face of the Coronavirus is that it will spurn many of the seemingly endemic political enmities of the region towards a singular focus on a problem that was never of its making but could be of its unmaking.

by : jamse danselow