Attacks on regional tourist destinations, while frightening, have been happening with less ferocity in the past year. As we close out 2017, the industry in the Middle East and North Africa has something to be thankful, for tourists are returning in big numbers.
At the second UNWTO/Unesco World Conference on Tourism and Culture held in Oman, ministers from around the world and over 700 delegates explored the links between tourism development, sustainability and cultural heritage. I chaired two roundtables, one with 25 ministers and the other with 15 participants from across the sector. so there was no shortage of ideas.
The message throughout the two-day forum was one of guarded optimism, despite living in what Lina Annab, Jordan’s minister of tourism and antiquities, said was “permanent anxiety”. She has a point; this has become the new normal.
In a 24 hour, 7-day news cycle where we are always on, the modern explorer is very educated and factors in a certain level of risk into their travel equation. Millennials like to travel, blaze new trails and be on a constant push for discovery.
Annab says “today’s traveller is geopolitically aware” and therefore not held hostage to media coverage or terrorist threats. Having said that, she candidly admits that Jordan benefits from what is a renowned security apparatus that has kept, for the most part, the Kingdom a safe haven even with war-torn countries Syria and Iraq as neighbours.
According to the UNWTO’s World Tourism Barometer, the numbers through the first eight months of 2017 were impressive, especially in North Africa. After a terrible 2016 linked to attacks in the Sinai and Red Sea resorts, Egypt was up 52 per cent in terms of international arrivals and it was not alone.
“The fact that destinations such as Egypt, Tunisia or Turkey have seen tourism come back with double-digit growth and the 5 per cent growth in international tourist arrivals to the Middle East so far this year reflect the recovery and resilience of these mature destinations,” said Taleb Rifai, Secretary-General of the UNWTO, as he closes out his final term in that role at the end of the month.
Rifai took to top slot shortly before the Arab Spring back in 2011. I remember quite vividly that through the worst of it all, he told governments not to bow to regional upheaval or terrorism and pointed to the eventual light at the end of the tunnel.
Turkey’s minister of tourism told the packed audience in Muscat that the country wants to surpass 50 million visitors by 2023, the 100th anniversary of the country’s secular republic. The country as recently as 2014 took in 40 million visitors, but witnessed a steep fall due to terrorist attacks and the political upheaval linked to the failed coup attempt in 2016.
It is worth underlining the power of the sector. Tourism represents anywhere from 6-10 per cent of a country’s total GDP in the MENA region, but many at the UNWTO conference suggested due to its high-profile, the sector represents much more beyond what the economic numbers suggest.
“Tourism has become a powerful social glue both in-country and across different countries to support one another,” said Anita Mendiratta, founder and president of Cachet Consulting and a special adviser to the UNWTO Secretary-General.
“It (rebuilding) may not require hard infrastructure but soft infrastructure, getting people working (and) making them feel secure and proud of their home again,” she added.
Tightening up security, attracting and training staff and opening up new resorts are part of the day-to-day planning by the public and private sectors in business. But regional governments admittedly had to up their game in a global market that now has 1.2 billion travellers a year, especially for smaller economies like Bahrain, Lebanon and Jordan. All three have seen double-digit growth in 2017.
Minister Annab of Jordan told me that she has adopted a three-pronged strategy, which includes identifying new markets, following through by opening them up and mixing traditional and social media outreach. But the approach is much more complex, as she looks to secure a wide range of travellers in four key but diverse segments: religious, health, cultural and adventure tourism.
“It is the clarity of the vision we are having; it is the way we segmented our product and each segment has its own audience,” she said.
The MENA region is starving for long-term stability. During our debate, ministers said they look forward to the day where they feel confident enough to look at a multi-country offering for the more adventurous globe-trotters.
The writer is Emerging Markets Editor at CNNMoney.