Middle East in 2023: War, Tourism Slowdown, and Dreams of ‘New Europe’

Middle East War and Tourism
Written by Binayak Karki

The Middle East has seen wars here and there constantly. The ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict, which erupted in October, has been a serious issue also in international tourism. As a ripple effect of the war, travel and tourism are severely blunted in several Middle Eastern countries.

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While the war is undoubtedly decreasing the number of international visitors in the region, this phenomenon poses a significant economic threat to the countries of the Israeli neighborhood in the Middle East. This decline has quickly undone the success stories of previous years in countries like Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan, whose economy heavily depends on tourism.

The conflict has impacted almost every part of the travel sector: travel operators are cutting back or delaying trips, cruise lines are changing their ship locations, and airlines are significantly reducing their services.

Government advisories and personal concerns are making many travelers hesitant about visiting the region, resulting in numerous cancellations. Local tour operators are concerned about the potential long-term effects of a prolonged war on an industry previously showing notable promise and growth.

“New Europe” Dies Out Before Shining

Consultants and tour operators in Egypt hoped the Middle East would be a new hub for tourism, expecting the improved relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran to play a vital role. The Middle East was expected to evolve as a “New Europe.”

Tour operators are complaining about only 40% of bookings until September 2024.

Hussein Abdallah, the general manager of Lebanon Tours and Travels in Beirut, asserts that Lebanon is safe despite the conflict, and even after Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu remarks, he was ready to turn Beirut into another Gaza.

Yet, Hussenin’s agency has not received any bookings since the war began. He notes the stark emptiness of usually bustling tourist sites like the Jeita Grotto and the Baalbek Temples, which typically draw thousands of visitors daily.

Data analysts who track global flight reservations comment that the demand for most Middle Eastern countries is deteriorating.

Sudden Full Stop to a Successful Business Year in the Middle East

The conflict emerged during thriving tourism in the Middle East following the pandemic peak. Between January and July of this year, visitor arrivals to the region exceeded 2019 levels by 20%, marking the Middle East as the global region to surpass pre-pandemic tourism figures, as per the UN World Tourism Organization.

The Egyptian government aimed for a record-breaking 15 million visitors in 2023 and had plans to expand hotel accommodations and airline capacity to attract more tourists. They also sought increased private investment in the tourism sector.

Air service into Israel has significantly decreased, with more than 80% of flights cut in November compared to the approximately 5,000 flights in November 2022, as reported by local media.

Major American carriers halted regular flights to Tel Aviv when the conflict began and have yet to resume service. Airlines have also suspended flights to neighboring countries: Lufthansa stopped flights to Israel and Lebanon, while European budget carriers Wizz Air and Ryanair temporarily ceased operations in Jordan.

Tourism accounts for a substantial portion, ranging from 12 to 26 percent, of the total earnings from abroad for Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan, as per a report by S&P Global Ratings, an international credit rating provider.

A report published on November 6 highlighted that countries neighboring Israel and Gaza are at greater risk of a tourism slowdown due to worries about security issues and social instability, compounded by their high external vulnerabilities. It also warned that a worsening of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza or a significant escalation in the West Bank might trigger a fresh wave of refugee influxes, posing economic burdens on the regional economies.

Tourism contributed roughly 3 percent of Israel’s earnings from abroad in 2022, making the country less dependent on this sector than its neighbors. However, international travel generated around $5 billion (S$6.7 billion) for the state and provided indirect employment for approximately 200,000 individuals, as the Israeli Ministry of Tourism reported.

Cruise Cancellations

Numerous cruise lines and tour operators have canceled or altered trips involving Israel, and the resumption of departures remains uncertain.

Intrepid Travel postponed 47 trips to Israel this year. However, Israel is a smaller destination for them compared to other Middle Eastern countries like Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt, which usually rank among their top five global destinations. Cancellations for these countries have surged since the conflict began, with around half of Intrepid’s bookings for Egypt and Jordan being canceled or rescheduled by year-end.

Major cruise lines have canceled port calls in Israel through next year, with Norwegian and Royal Caribbean scrapping 2024 sailings to and from Israel due to safety concerns even after the war ends.

Royal Caribbean redirected two ships from the Middle East to the Caribbean, while MSC Cruises, canceling Israel port calls until April, bypasses Aqaba, Jordan, and Egypt on specific itineraries and redeploys two ships.

WHAT TO TAKE AWAY FROM THIS ARTICLE:

  • It also warned that a worsening of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza or a significant escalation in the West Bank might trigger a fresh wave of refugee influxes, posing economic burdens on the regional economies.
  • While the war is undoubtedly decreasing the number of international visitors in the region, this phenomenon poses a significant economic threat to the countries of the Israeli neighborhood in the Middle East.
  • Between January and July of this year, visitor arrivals to the region exceeded 2019 levels by 20%, marking the Middle East as the global region to surpass pre-pandemic tourism figures, as per the UN World Tourism Organization.

About the author

Binayak Karki

Binayak - based in Kathmandu - is an editor and author writing for eTurboNews.

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