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Tourism in the Levant

(DP-News - allheadlinenews )

Travel to the Middle East this year was supposed to reach record highs, but the Arab Spring sent the numbers tumbling, as the violence and turmoil kept many away. But there are signs of recovery in Egypt, even as tourism continues to drop in Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian areas.

According to the UN’s World Tourism Organization, which monitors tourism trends, recovery has already been seen through statistics showing that Egypt suffered an 80% drop in tourism in February at the height of the anti-regime protests, but that by May it had halved to 41% less.


“In a broader context, it should be underlined that the Middle East has been the fastest growing region in the past decade in spite of temporary disruptions and setbacks,” a UNWTO report said, adding that international travel to the region had risen from 24 million to 60 million annually in the past decade.

Alternatively, the annual Maplecraft Terrorism Risk Index released this week ranked travel to the Palestinian Territories sixth in the “extreme risk” category while Israel placed 20th.

Kholoud Daibes, Tourism Minister, Palestinian Authority, told The Media Line that tourism was in fact down this year from last. Ironically, the Palestinian territories have not been the scene of any major violent events.

“Last year we had two million [visitors]. This year we are expecting 15% less due to the circumstances around us. We are around 700,000 until now,” Daibes said during a recent festival in the West Bank town of Birzeit.

“We would like to introduce Palestine with its diversity. With its different, let’s say, image, than the one circulating in the media,” she added.

Syria and Lebanon, on the other hand, have seen tourism die a painful death as Syria’s shock troops ratchet up the crackdown on popular unrest that erupted in March.

“We would be happy to arrange for you a package that doesn’t take in the risky spots. The hotels are offering very many special deals now,” a travel agent at Syritours, one of the leading tour operators in Syria, said cheerfully when reached by telephone.

The Syrian Tourism Ministry’s “Damascus in August” brochure is offering Ramadan night tours in the old market sponsored by the Iranian cultural chancellery; and a film festival at the Russian culture center.

The alleys of the Damascus souk [marketplace] should have been filled with tourists this summer. Ironically, it was just a year ago that the New York Times rated Syria in the top ten of the hottest places to visit in 2010. UNESCO has cited Syria as the number one place in the world for archaeological sites.

And until this Arab Spring and the ruthless suppression of anti-regime protests during which human rights organizations say nearly 2,000 people have been killed, tourist numbers had been steadily climbing. The United States and European Union have issued severe travel warnings against visiting Syria and have urged their citizens there to “depart immediately.”

Syrian Tourism Minister Lamia Assai said the unrest had been a blow to the industry.

"Tourism has been the sector hardest hit by the incidents in Syria," Assai told the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat. "Hotel reservations have been cancelled as insurers refuse to cover tourists wishing to visit Syria.”

"Tourist arrivals from Europe and the Arab Gulf States have almost stopped," she said, adding that occupancy rates at hotels had plummeted “to zero” during the summer holiday season.

The crisis has hit the economy hard. Since the outbreak of the uprising, Syria's tourism sector - which reportedly makes up 12 per cent of the economy - has almost completely ceased operations.

Neighboring Lebanon, too, is suffering. Lebanon’s Tourism Minister Fadi Aboud said last week that the country has lost most of its tourists this year due to the unrest in Syria. Speaking to Radio Free Lebanon, he said that restrictions on traveling through Syria have kept away tens of thousands of tourists from neighboring countries.

According to UNWTO figures, tourism to Syria is down 24% and Lebanon has seen a 19% drop.

“I am the only tourist I have seen during my visit to Syria. The beautiful boutique hotels, established in restored Arab houses, lie empty. The rug stores and galleries have no customers. There are no visitors to the castles and archaeological sites of Syria,” Emma Sky, a former political adviser to US forces in Iraq, wrote in Foreign Policy.

“I feel sad. Damascus is perhaps the most beautiful city I have visited in the Middle East. Syrians are the friendliest and kindest of people.”

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