“Arab Spring” chaos killing Middle East and North Africa tourism

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Tourism to the Middle East and North Africa declined sharply in the first half of the year, going against an international trend of growth in arrivals to record levels.

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Tourism to the Middle East and North Africa declined sharply in the first half of the year, going against an international trend of growth in arrivals to record levels. But there are some signs of recovery in parts of the region, the UN World Tourism Organization said in its latest report. Political instability in popular tourists spots including Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria prompted a 13 percent drop in arrivals to North Africa and an 11 percent fall in the Middle East, the report revealed.

International tourism grew 4.5 percent in the first half of this year from a year earlier to reach a record of 440 million arrivals, the UN agency said. “Results from recent months show that destinations such as Egypt, Tunisia or Japan are seeing declines in demand clearly reverting,” according to the report.

Hoteliers in the UAE have reported strong growth in occupancy levels, as travellers have avoided other destinations in the region. Similarly, southern and Mediterranean destinations in Europe, such as Turkey, have also benefited from unrest elsewhere, the report noted.

Tourism globally fell sharply following the economic downturn. But last year the sector rebounded strongly, with 6.6 percent growth in arrivals to 940 million, while international tourism receipts grew 4.7 percent to US$919 billion (Dh3.37 trillion). “We must remain cautious as the global economy is showing signs of increased volatility,” said Taleb Rifai, the agency’s secretary general. “Many advanced economies still face risks posed by weak growth, fiscal problems and persistently high unemployment. Simultaneously, signs of overheating have become apparent in some emerging economies.”

The organisation is much less optimistic about prospects for the second half of this year. “Following an encouraging first half of 2011, growth in the remainder of the year is expected to soften somewhat as recent months have brought increased uncertainty, hampering business and consumer confidence.”

There was growth of 6 percent for tourism arrivals to the Americas in the first half, the figures showed. Asia and the Pacific was up 5 percent, Europe 6 percent and arrivals to sub-Saharan Africa 9 percent. “Growth in advanced economies has maintained strength and is closing the gap with emerging economies, which have been driving international tourism growth in recent years,” the organisation said. “This trend reflects the decreases registered in the Middle East and North Africa.”

Last year, the Middle East was the fastest-growing region for arrivals, up 14 percent, following a decline of 4 percent in 2009. China last year grew in popularity as a tourism destination, moving up the rankings in terms of arrivals and receipts to third and fourth place respectively.

China also overtook the UK last year to become the third-biggest international tourism spender, with the Asian country quadrupling its expenditure on tourism since 2000. France, with 77 million tourists, was top last year in terms of arrivals. The US was first for tourism receipts with $104bn and in second place for arrivals.

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.