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Gaza conflict: Middle East tourism struggles for survival

World Thursday 30/November/2023 21:48 PM
By: DW
Gaza conflict: Middle East tourism struggles for survival

Moustafa Hassan is slowly starting to worry.

"Sharm [el-Sheikh] is safe, it is a city of peace," insisted the Egyptian man who works as a food and beverage manager at a hotel in the popular resort town. But potential visitors seem to be thinking twice about coming, the 50-year-old father of four told DW.

"The number of tourists to Egypt has decreased due to the Gaza war," Hassan noted. Sharm el-Sheikh is about a three-hour drive from the Israeli border and, of all of Egypt's traditional tourist sites, closest to Israel's border with Egypt. 

In early October the  Hamas group launched an attack on Israel that resulted in the deaths of around 1,200 Israelis and foreigners. Since then Israel has been bombing the Gaza Strip, where Hamas is based, and at latest count, around 14,000 Palestinians have been killed as a result, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry. A temporary truce that was due to expire on Thursday has been extended by a day, but the conflict is expected to be ongoing.

Some resorts in Sharm el-Sheikh depend on visitors from Israel, Hassan continued, and these guests are not coming because of what is happening back home.

Other hotels, catering mostly to European holidaymakers, are suffering because those tourists are worried about their safety in the Middle East.

But as Egypt slips further into an economic crisis and the Egyptian pound continues to devalue, a slump in the sector is the last thing locals need. Tourism makes up between 10% to 15% of Egypt's gross domestic product every year.

Impact only just starting to be felt

"Tourism is a source of income for workers in the tourism sector but also for those connected to it from afar, such as in taxis, supermarkets, diving centers and amusement parks," Hassan explained.

Right now, it seems the slowdown is only just starting, possibly because those travelers who couldn't get a refund still went ahead as planned. The problem will become more apparent as future reservations are tallied, travel agents and tour operators said, adding that these have already fallen over the past two months.

It is still too early to tell what the impact will be, Dubai- and Beirut-based financial consultancy Nasser Saidi and Associates confirmed in a market briefing at the end of October. But the early signs are worrying, the briefing added, noting that since early October, ticket purchases for Egypt had fallen 26%, for Jordan by 49% and for Lebanon by 74% compared to the same period last year.

This is despite the fact that there are few official travel warnings issued by governments for anywhere outside of the main sites of the conflict ­— that is, Israel, Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

The US government has also advised its citizens not to go to Lebanon because of the presence of the Hezbollah group there; before the current cease-fire, Hezbollah's armed wing and the Israeli army were exchanging fire over the southern Lebanese border.

As a result, even after a particularly successful summer, Lebanese visitor numbers have plummeted. Local media report hotel occupancy rates of between zero and 7% compared to hotels usually being at least a quarter full.

Hezbollah is an Iran-backed  group in Lebanon. 

Lebanon's crisis-riven economy remains heavily dependent on tourism with the sector providing as much as 40% of its national income, which has decreased during the current financial crisis.

Travelers have also been advised to avoid going to any areas of Egypt or Jordan directly bordering Israel. But most popular tourist destinations tend to be a good distance away from those locations.

Jordan tourism 'sluggish'

Next door to Israel, Jordan has also seen around half its hotel reservations cancelled in October, Hussein Helalat, spokesperson for the Jordan Hotel Association, told local media earlier this month.

After finally recovering from the aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jordan's hoteliers had been expecting an almost 95% occupancy rate during the final quarter of this year. Now, they might possibly hit 80%, Helalat said. Sites like Petra, with its world-famous archeology, were particularly affected because it was mostly Americans and Europeans who came to see these.

In Jordan, tourism regularly brings in between 11% and 15% of the country's national income.

Jordanian tourism entrepreneur and marketing consultant Najwan al-Masri has been watching the numbers carefully too. The figures for November, as compiled by the local tourism board, are not yet out, she told DW, but there was a slight decline, from September to October. It's gone from 760,000 visitors in September to 730,000 in October, al-Masri noted.

"As a stakeholder in the tourism industry, I've observed a significant downturn in activity from the beginning of this month," al-Masri continued, "including a sluggish movement from international visitors and also within the local market."

Other destinations have also been hard hit, like Israel, for obvious reasons. Bethlehem, which Christians believe to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, usually sees its busiest time during the Christmas holiday. However, in the middle of November, Palestinian Christians in the city decided that there should be no public celebrations while the conflict goes on in Gaza.

So far, impact on other countries restricted

Some other nearby destinations have also felt the impact but it's been less pronounced. Morocco and Tunisia both experienced a drop of bookings between 15% and 20%, tour operators told France's Le Monde newspaper earlier this month. And in nearby Cyprus, Israeli tourists previously made up around 15% of all visitors and were the second biggest group to holiday there after Britain; they're not coming now because of fighting at home.

As to how long the slump in this all-important sector will go on in the region, or what the end effect will be, that remains as uncertain as a lasting resolution to the conflict in Gaza.

For now, things still seem to be alright, Hassan, the hospitality manager in Sharm el-Sheikh, said. "But when hotel owners find their source of income is decreasing due to the lack of tourists, they will think about reducing expenses. And they see that salaries are the primary expenses," he suggested.

"In the event of a prolonged war, the entire tourism industry — and especially small businesses that have been thriving in recent years with significant investments from young Jordanians — stands to suffer," Jordanian tourism consultant al-Masri concluded.

The Christmas period is always an important time for tourism and if the conflict continues, "the jeopardy extends to our next season," she said.