A Rebirth For The Middle East?

A Rebirth For The Middle East?

Nations of the troubled region need tourists, including Americans, to ensure their future. Lee Smith examines whether—and why—visitors will come

Maher Haggag is a 35-year-old Egyptian entrepreneur who, like 15 percent of the country's workforce, depends on tourism for his livelihood. He has designed a series of inflatable pharaonic dolls—King Tut, the jackal god Anubis—that are easier for travelers to pack than bulky alabaster or wooden souvenirs. Haggag knows his market. As a tour guide in the nineties, he worked with Egypt's biggest spenders, the Americans.

"One time I was leading a group on the Nile and mentioned that the next day we'd visit the west bank," he remembers. "In the morning the hotel woke me to say the group members were asking for their passports. I went to find out what the problem was and they thought we were going to the Palestinian territories. I explained that we were going to the west bank of the Nile.

"Americans," says Haggag, "don't understand the region very well."

Although plenty of Americans have more familiarity with the Middle East today, of course, many do not—a fact exacerbated by the sharp decline in American visitors, particularly since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. If in the late nineties one of the key issues facing the region was how it would develop to handle growing demand from American travelers, today it's unclear to many if those tourists will ever return.

Certainly, much depends on an end to conflict there, as well as to terrorism by Islamic groups around the world. But as Antoine Corinthios, Four Seasons Hotels' president of hotel operations for the Middle East, notes, there is a potentially lasting problem of image: "The region is perceived negatively by Americans. You have all the headlines in the papers, all the images on TV."

Nonetheless, like many other companies, Four Seasons is optimistic about the future. It plans to open a new property in Doha, Qatar, in 2004, another in Damascus, Syria, in 2005, and a third in Beirut in 2006. These will be added to recent openings in Amman, Jordan; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; and Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt, where President Bush stayed during his summit with Arab leaders this past spring.

Already there are some good signs. Although Israel is a favored U.S. ally, its tourism industry continues to suffer from the state of war that followed the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000. The country's Ministry of Tourism is hoping for 1.2 million tourists this year, versus the 2.6 million who came in 1999. The other nations of the region are doing better. "You couldn't find a room in Beirut or Dubai this summer," says Peter Voll of High Country Passage, a tour operator in Redwood City, California.

Egypt's numbers for 2002, for instance, show that while American travel to the country was down 34.1 percent from 2001, the number of Europeans increased by 14.4 percent. Arabs, especially those from the Gulf states and Libya, are also coming in record-breaking numbers, up this year over last by 16 percent. These wealthy Arabs, accustomed to vacationing in Europe and the United States, are traveling more in the Arab world for the same reason many Americans are sticking close to home—to avoid places they see as potential trouble for themselves.

Tourism may be the signature industry of the global economy, but what that industry looks like in a given place depends on historical and cultural peculiarities. In the Arab world, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt present different models for the future.

Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates, didn't discover oil off its shores until 1966, long after it was found in Saudi Arabia. So, unlike the Saudis, Dubai had planned for its future without petrodollars as part of the equation.

"Even when oil was discovered," says Ashaia Haroun, an information officer at the U.A.E. Embassy in Washington, D.C., "it was decided that the future of Dubai was not in oil, but in trade." As Haroun explains, this was natural, since Dubai has long seen itself as a port city devoted to commerce.

Today Dubai is profiting from being one of the most open cultures in the Arab world. Its economy has emphasized specialized services, such as those provided at its Media City and Medical City, which depend less on site-specific requirements than on technology and infrastructure. Dubai's tourism program largely follows the same model.

There's little cultural tourism in Dubai; instead the focus is on shopping, beaches, and luxury hotels. One of Dubai's most spectacular current projects is the Palm, two man-made offshore islands that will include 30 hotels and an underwater park when completed in 2005. The approach seems to be working: between 2001 and 2002, Dubai enjoyed the world's largest growth in tourism.

The emirate's success has been noticed by other Arab states. Qatar, for example, might be the next Dubai, says Four Seasons' Corinthios: "There's a construction boom right now, and, more to the point, progressive thinking in the government." The country is currently building a resort on a man-made island north of Doha, with hotels and amusement parks.

While Dubai and Qatar are on friendly terms with the United States, neither is yet a major destination for Americans. The number of American tour operators running trips to Dubai grew 17 percent between 2001 and 2002—a respectable figure, but hardly the 28 percent jump made by Japanese operators to this Emirate, or the 69 percent increase by those in Australia and New Zealand.

Saudi Arabia couldn't be more different than the smaller Gulf states. Whereas Dubai and Qatar are budding information capitals, Saudi Arabia is arguably the most closed society in the world. Religious tourism in the form of the hajj to Mecca generates billions of dollars annually for the kingdom, but only Muslims are allowed to visit Mecca and Medina; the country itself was only officially opened to non-Muslim tourists in 1998. In 2000, the Saudi Supreme Commission for Tourism was formed, headed by Prince Sultan bin Salman, an outward-looking royal who traveled on the space shuttle Discovery in 1985.

"The first Arab in space knows how to talk to Westerners," says Professor Gregory Gause, a Saudi expert at the University of Vermont. "But there are still so many obstacles. You have to get sponsorship from the Saudi government to visit. The Saudis want tourism, but under very controlled circumstances."

"The Supreme Commission for Tourism is not selling tourism," says Brid Beeler, who runs Oakland, California-based Worlds Apart, which takes groups to the kingdom. "They're looking at different forms of tourism to see where the potential is." So far, the Saudis are planning to promote snorkeling, handicrafts, natural history, and archaeological sites. "The pre-Islamic Nabataean ruins in Madain Saleh are essential," says High Country Passage's Voll.

Indeed, the kingdom has become more eager to meet the needs of foreign tourists. "Just in the past year the country paved a road between the seacoast and Madain Saleh," says Voll, "which means it could be an overnight trip from a cruise ship." Carolyn McIntyre, regional director for the Middle East at Geographic Expeditions, a San Francisco-based group that runs tours to the kingdom, adds, "The Saudis are also opening up cross-border tourism, from Jordan to Saudi Arabia."

Saudi Arabia's fledgling tourism industry might eventually come to look like Jordan's, in fact. Jordan has one internationally famous attraction, Petra—"which is comparable to Madain Saleh," says McIntyre—and also draws visitors to its capital, Amman, and a collection of national parks. But there are important differences between Jordan and Saudi Arabia: at present Jordan has no major problems with domestic terrorism, and King Abdullah maintains close ties to the United States.

The Saudis' relationship with the U.S. government, however, is best described as strained; the country's reputation with the American public is considerably worse. And State Department warnings that discourage all but essential travel to the kingdom (newly issued at press time) don't help, either. Still, there's reason for the Saudis to persevere. For even if hard-liners don't agree that opening the kingdom to foreign influences is imperative for its political health, the country needs the new job opportunities a tourist industry would create: about 53 percent of its population is no more than 20 years old.

Egypt, for its part, is already much more dependent on tourism than Saudi Arabia or Dubai. For thousands of years travelers have been coming to see its man-made glories; today tourism is Egypt's leading source of revenue.

And yet the nation has long had a strange relationship with the idea of foreign visitors. Egyptians are sensitive about their country being perceived negatively by outsiders, and many believe that Egyptians haven't done enough themselves to change that perception. Several Lebanese restaurateurs in Cairo told me recently that there's little training in Egypt's service sector, and little tradition of serving people well. The Lebanese, coming as they do from a community historically dependent on trade, embrace the idea. The Egyptians, whose experience of foreigners includes 2,300 years of occupation, have not as yet.

Cairo once had the sort of élan many still associate with Beirut. Europeans and Arabs remember well when Beirut was called the Paris of the Levant. Over the past few years travelers have started to return, attracted by the city's growing number of stylish nightclubs and restaurants. This won't happen soon in Cairo. Egypt's fundamentalist turn throughout the 1980's and 90's virtually destroyed the remnants of its liberal heyday.

Militants in Egypt have held that the presence of foreign visitors defiles Muslim customs and peoples, thinking that led to the massacre of 58 tourists at Luxor in 1997. But the effect of Luxor was to turn most Egyptians against the militants, with many people's daily bread cut off because foreigners were scared away.

The government responded by routing domestic militants and tightening security, and tourism picked up a little more than a year after Luxor. Today the country's rebound, following declines attributed to 9/11 and the war in Iraq, is slightly misleading. Rooms are filling up, but not with Americans. And, as Four Seasons' Corinthios notes, "the Americans stay longer, and live larger."

In order to win them back and keep Europeans coming, Egypt is diversifying its image, learning from Dubai and promoting more unexpected experiences, such as Red Sea snorkeling and eastern desert safaris. The country isn't deemphasizing its pharaonic monuments or the city of a thousand minarets—it's just proving that this is a place to visit more than once in your life.

Given the complex nature of the Middle East, it's no surprise, as the Egyptian guide Haggag says, that Americans don't know the region well. But if the past is any indication, the events that have kept travelers away are exactly what will bring them back.

Although Americans are not generally regarded as the world's most intrepid travelers, Geographic Expeditions already has a long waiting list for its first trip to Iraq next year. The United States and the Middle East are now becoming a part of each other's history, and, someday, Americans will no doubt want to see the places they are reading about in the newspapers and watching on TV. This is why, as Corinthios says, "the British continue to come to Egypt. It's because of their history there."

The British know the Middle East well because of their past colonial enterprises. Whether or not America's involvement in the region is, as many Arabs fear, a reprise of Europe's imperial projects, it is true that Egypt's role in British history is one reason that the British now come east. And it is the headlines, the images in the U.S. media from Baghdad, Basra, Ramallah, and Cairo, that will eventually, invariably, inspire Americans to make their own separate peace with the Middle East. And the sooner the better. For just as political and cultural issues will need to be resolved to bring Americans back in greater numbers, so long-term understanding, and the coexistence of Arabs and Americans in a globalized economy, depends on travel.

LEE SMITH divides his time between Cairo and Brooklyn and is writing a book on Arab culture for Scribner.

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